- The Washington Times - Sunday, November 15, 2009

James R. Lilley, whose six-decade government career included serving as U.S. ambassador to China during the tumult of the 1989 Beijing democracy protests and military crackdown, died Nov. 12. He was 81.

For 25 years Mr. Lilley was a CIA operations officer, and he was the agency’s first station chief in Beijing.

The outspoken diplomat and intelligence officer was widely admired for his unique combination of affability and gruffness. He held a number of posts in Asia and also worked on the White House National Security Council, at the State Department and in the Pentagon under two presidents.

Michael Lilley, one of Mr. Lilley’s three sons, said his father died after a long battle with prostate cancer.

“Jim Lilley was a great American. He served his country with courage and distinction, as an intelligence officer and diplomat,” said Joseph DeTrani, a CIA operations veteran who is currently North Korea mission manager within the Office of the Director of National Intelligence. “He was a model and mentor for many of us.”

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton said Mr. Lilley was “one our nation’s finest diplomats.”

“For decades, Jim helped shape U.S. relations in East Asia,” she said. Mrs. Clinton said the period while he was ambassador in Beijing was “one of the most difficult periods in our bilateral relations,” and that “he stood up for human rights and ensured the safety of American citizens and embassy personnel in the months following the Tiananmen incident.

“As I travel through East Asia this week, I see Jim’s legacy in our strong bilateral and regional partnerships, and in the many talented Foreign Service officers he mentored,” Mrs. Clinton said. “Jim inspired generations of China hands, and at a time when many were convinced that there was little place for women diplomats in Confucian societies, he supported and encouraged the aspirations of women officers. His integrity, loyalty, and hard work exemplified the best tradition of American statecraft.”

Arthur Waldron, a University of Pennsylvania international relations professor and specialist on China, said Mr. Lilley was a towering figure in American foreign affairs.

“Jim Lilley was arguably the most accomplished intelligence professional of his generation and also one of the most accomplished diplomats,” Mr. Waldron said in an interview.

“His finest hour was when he handled the situation in Tiananmen Square and right afterward. That situation was so difficult it would have sunk any but a great man. But he kept U.S.-Chinese relations from exploding and also got a lot of innocent people out of China.”

In 1989 China’s communist government called in troops that fired on unarmed demonstrators, killing hundreds in Tiananmen Square. After the incident, Mr. Lilley sheltered Chinese dissidents in the U.S. Embassy in Beijing, where tanks had been positioned outside. He successfully negotiated the release to the United States of pro-democracy activist Fang Lizhi, resisting pressure from the Chinese government to release him from sanctuary within the embassy.

Mr. Waldron said Mr. Lilley’s greatest asset was his ability to understand China’s people. “I would say he was the only American with the ability to intuitively think the way a Chinese person thinks and pull himself out of his American viewpoint. He could see things the way a Chinese analyst would see them,” Mr. Waldron said.

Born in Qingdao, China, on Jan. 15, 1928, Mr. Lilley spent his early years there and became fluent in Chinese. His father sold kerosene in China for Standard Oil.

He attended Phillips Exeter Academy and graduated from Yale University in 1951. During his college years he was recruited into the CIA, where his Chinese language skills were put to use in numerous intelligence operations throughout Asia.

During his 25 years in the agency, Mr. Lilley was involved in clandestine operations in Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Cambodia, Thailand, Laos and Hong Kong. He was also a national intelligence officer for East Asia, the senior-most analytic position, during the administration of President George H.W. Bush. He was awarded the Distinguished Intelligence Medal, presented by the CIA for performance of outstanding services or for achievement of a distinctly exceptional nature in a duty or responsibility.

“Jim Lilley was a most knowledgeable and effective ambassador who served with great honor and distinction,” Mr. Bush said. “Jim was a close friend and Barbara and I mourn his loss and send our love to his wife, Sally. I spoke with Jim just a few days ago and he was still full of his typical irresistible humor and charm. I will never forget him.”

During the administration of President Reagan, Mr. Lilley was selected to serve as the director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. ambassador, from 1981 to 1984. He later served as ambassador to South Korea from 1986 to 1989, when that nation made important steps in establishing democratic governance.

Colleagues who worked with Mr. Lilley recalled that while In Taiwan, he was instrumental in pressing then-President Chiang Ching-kuo to move toward democratic political reforms and convinced the Taiwanese leader to dispatch Chiang’s ruthless security chief to a job in Paraguay.

Mr. Lilley was the top American diplomat during the June 1987 political crisis in Seoul when then-South Korean President Chun Doo Hwan was poised to order troops to open fire on demonstrating students and impose martial law. During a dramatic meeting with Mr. Chun on June 19, 1987, Mr. Lilley presented a letter from Reagan that was a warning to Mr. Chun and averted violence there.

In his 2004 memoir, “China Hands,” Mr. Lilley said his posting as ambassador to Beijing from 1989 to 1991 was “the pinnacle of my government career as a specialist on China.” He recalled the difficulty of enduring gunfire by retreating Chinese troops who on June 4, 1989, opened fire on thousands of unarmed pro-democracy protesters in what has come to be known as the Tiananmen massacre.

Mr. Lilley was a lifelong friend of democratic Taiwan and wrote in his book, co-authored with his son Jeffrey Lilley, that the 1978 agreement with China establishing diplomatic relations and de-recognizing Taiwan as the legitimate government of China was poorly done. The United States had “rushed into a deal” with China that sought to leave Taiwan “disarmed and neutralized,” he wrote.

“I think it was Rudyard Kipling who said ‘Fools try to hustle the East.’ Well, we had gotten hustled by the East,” he wrote. A year later Congress passed the Taiwan Relations Act, which provided security guarantees to Taiwan that were nearly as strong as the U.S.-Taiwan defense treaty that has been abrogated.

Mr. Waldron recalled how Mr. Lilley had accurately predicted that the communist government in North Korea had set up a second secret uranium enrichment plan as part of its nuclear arms program.

“One day he said to me, ‘Well you know what? The Koreans have a second secret nuclear program.’

“How do you know that?” Mr. Waldron asked him. Mr. Lilley replied that the Koreans had just signed away their nuclear program in the 1994 Agreed Framework and the only explanation is that they had a second secret program, Mr. Waldron said, noting that this analysis came at least a year before news of North Korea’s uranium enrichment program became public.

“This was evidence of a steel trap mind of an intelligence professional,” Mr. Waldron said.

Mr. Lilley’s success in dealing with the Chinese was attributed by friends to his fluency in both the language and culture.

“He was a master of the use of Chinese proverbs and this impressed the Chinese to no end, and was a reason he was very, very effective at the jobs he did,” Mr. Waldron said.

John J. Tkacik Jr., a former State Department China specialist who served with Mr. Lilley in Beijing during the Tiananmen events, praised him for his skill in several postings.

“I served under eight ambassadors overseas, all excellent, but I have to admit Ambassador Lilley was the best,” Mr. Tkacik said. “He arrived in Beijing just as the Tiananmen demonstrations of May 1989 were coalescing. He courageously sheltered political dissidents inside the embassy; he organized the diplomatic work; he was decisive in evacuating Americans as the Chinese army machine-gunned residential blocks near the embassy; and he was tough, there was no overtime - we worked 24 hours a day during that summer.”

During his later years, Mr. Lilley also served on several intelligence community advisory panels and was critical of U.S. intelligence on China.

He said during a 2004 meeting at the Heritage Foundation that U.S. intelligence on China “is not necessarily group think, but it is political correctness; we have seen this before in the intelligence community.

“And I think we’ve got to be very much aware of political correctness, the idea that there is a strategic partnership with China that is the most bilateral relationship in the world, and the Taiwan issue is an obstacle to progress in that relationship,” Mr. Lilley said during the meeting. “I think our experience tells us that is a false concept, and the people that try to load intelligence and advance that position are not doing their country a favor.”

Mr. Lilley is survived by his wife Sally and sons Douglas, Michael and Jeffrey.

• Bill Gertz can be reached at bgertz@washingtontimes.com.

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