- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 28, 2004




By James Lilley, with Jeffrey Lilley

Public Affairs, $30, 448 pages, illus.


James Lilley recently summed up his long career by describing himself as a “Cold Warrior turned peacemaker,” a ranking CIA operative who turned diplomat to smooth relations with our longtime adversary, the People’s Republic of China, and to nudge South Korea and Taiwan towards democracy.

The intelligence officer who ran covert operations against the PRC for decades found great irony in going to Peking as CIA’s first station chief there. His odyssey is told in “China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia,” written with son Jeffrey, a Washington lawyer now doing international development work.

The plural (“hands”) in the book’s title is a tribute to the author’s older brother, Frank, who served in Japan during the postwar military occupation. A pacifist and idealist, Frank became disillusioned with war’s impact on Asia and killed himself at the age of 26. James Lilley chose the route of pragmatic reality — one must work through problems towards achievable goals. Hence his long career in government.

Mr. Lilley was born in Tsingtao, China, in 1928, the son of a Standard Oil executive. He studied at Yale, which in the early Cold War years served as a rich talent pool for the new (formed in 1947) CIA. He thought of joining the State Department but a professor scoffed that it was “stuck in concrete.” Intelligence, conversely, was a “growth industry.”

As Mr. Lilley writes, “I was excited by the prospect of an adventurous career and by the idea that I could contribute to efforts to stem the tide of communism. It was a good cause, and I believed that the United States and its values were worth fighting for.”

Peter Braestrup, later an esteemed Washington journalist, wrote in the Yale 1951 class book, “we face the realization that the very civilization we have trained ourselves to foster has been placed on the verge of destruction.” Mr. Lilley was one of “about a hundred” of his classmates who joined CIA.

Unsurprisingly, with the Korean War raging, his first assignment was running operations against Communist China. (Amusingly, the passage of time had wreaked severe damage to his linguistic skills: “I could speak Chinese like a four-year-old. I had mastered the vocabulary to count, eat, swear and defecate.”)

Working under the cover of a military officer, Mr. Lilley had three tasks: to support a purported 1.6 million Kuomintang guerrillas left in China when the Nationalist government collapsed; to organize a “third force”of Nationalist officers, who trained in Saipan and Okinawa, for insertion into the mainland; and to obtain information on the Communist military, using “communications intercepts, air reconnaissance, and human agents.”

CIA received “virtually unlimited funding,” hoping that “robust clandestine efforts” would sap China’s resources and force it to divert manpower from Korea. But the agent operations came to naught.

The most painful failure for Mr. Lilley involved Yale classmate Jack Downey, who along with fellow paramilitary officer Dick Fectau parachuted into China to “rescue” an agent who in fact had been captured and turned. Both men were seized and served prison terms that did not end until President Nixon’s rapprochement with China more than 20 years later.

So CIA tried another tack. Mr. Lilley was dispatched to Hong Kong University in 1953 under the cover of a language and literature student.

During the day he studied such classic Chinese texts as “The Doctrine of Filial Piety.” At night, “I was a case officer looking for targets of opportunity in the streets, bars and hotels … engaging the local Chinese communities, particularly refugees who represented valuable sources of information on conditions in China.”

In due course the Hong Kong station had working penetrations of Chinese Communist organizations “such as the Bank of China and the Chinese Resource Corporation,” the latter a major trading group.

But there were disappointments. Mr. Lilley’s apparatus gained accurate information on the awesome cost of Mao Tse-tung’s “Great Leap Forward,” but reports “which had seemed so important to us in the field appeared to have had minimal impact in the corridors of Washington power.”

As deputy chief of station in Laos, a key task was insuring a friendly majority in the National Assembly. “We figured out who to support without letting our fingerprints show. As part of our ‘nation building’ effort in Laos, we pumped a relatively large amount of money to politicians who would listen to our advice … ‘friendly’ politicians won 54 of 57 seats.” Ambassador William Sullivan called Mr. Lilley “Mr. Tammany Hall.”

Back in Hong Kong in the late 1960s, Mr. Lilley found that the Cultural Revolution caused unrest and disillusionment that made gathering intelligence easier.

One key source was in Xinhua, the Chinese news agency, staffed by high party and intelligence officials. That source “provided us with early indications the Red Chinese were interested in opening up to the U.S. after two decades of hostile relations.”

And when the decision was made in 1973 to open diplomatic relations, Mr. Lilley persuaded the director of central intelligence, James Schlesinger, and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger to send him to Peking as station chief, with the Chinese being fully aware of his intelligence credentials.

Mr. Kissinger promised the Chinese, “We will identify him so you watch him. We promise he will undertake no other activity but to be a channel of communications.”

To Mr. Lilley’s distress, a month after he arrived in Peking the columnist Jack Anderson charged that the “CIA had quietly planted an operative in the U.S. mission in Peking”and identified Mr. Lilley by name. Mr. Anderson’s source was John Marks, a soured foreign service officer who was “naming names” of covert operatives worldwide.

The disclosure “effectively ended my career in clandestine operations for the CIA” after 29 years.

Now commenced a second career: on the National Security Council staff; in Taiwan as de facto ambassador, then as ambassador to South Korea, where Mr. Lilley gave an autocratic government successful nudges towards democracy. This last he describes as his “proudest accomplishment.”

In 1988, President George H.W. Bush sent him back to the PRC, this time as ambassador, at a time of rising domestic unrest. Mr. Lilley soon realized that an explosion was nigh, so he warned Washington in many cables. In one he described strongman Deng Xiaoping as an “Old Testament character. Revenge was in his nature,” and warned that he would crush any dissidents.

To Mr. Lilley’s chagrin, the State Department considered his warning cable “alarmist” and refused to send it to the White House. The Tiananmen Square massacre came a few days later. Nonetheless, Mr. Bush and Mr. Lilley persevered, and talked the Chinese back into a semblance of civilized behavior.

By the time Mr. Lilley’s tenure ended, relations were uneasy but nonetheless ongoing. (He would later be amused when the Chinese accused him of personally organizing the Tiananmen demonstrations. He writes, “As a CIA officer, I had been involved in some political subterfuge in my career, but I couldn’t organize 200,000 Chinese youths in four weeks to almost overthrow an authoritarian state. That was beyond my capabilities.”)

Mr. Lilley is now on a third career, as Asian expert at the American Enterprise Institute, and a regular as a TV talking head and op-ed commentator. He remains a problem-solving pragmatist. Like his long-dead brother Frank, he does not see military might as the ultimate solution (though it is nonetheless a card that should not be discarded).

When he left China two years after the Tiananmen massacre, his final report stated, “Our effort should be to bend China, not to break it or change it fundamentally … China is what it is, not as we want it to be.”

Joseph C. Goulden is writing a book on Cold War intelligence. His e-mail is JosephG894@ aol.com.

Copyright © 2018 The Washington Times, LLC. Click here for reprint permission.

The Washington Times Comment Policy

The Washington Times welcomes your comments on Spot.im, our third-party provider. Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.


Click to Read More and View Comments

Click to Hide