Accessibility links

Former Ambassador Chronicles Personal History of US-China Relations - 2004-05-24

One of the most prominent China watchers in the United States, James Lilley, has published a new book detailing his family's extensive involvement with China over most of the last century.

Ambassador James Lilley's association with China began at his birth in 1928.

His memoir, titled China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia begins with the idyllic childhoods of James and his two handsome, athletic older brothers, when their father worked for Standard Oil in neo-colonial China. The book is also a lifelong effort to come to terms with the tragic early suicide of James's beloved elder brother, Frank.

?This is a personal engagement from 1916 to 2004. My father, my brother Frank and me,? he explained.

In addition to his personal story, Ambassador Lilley writes about his career of unusual achievement that spanned four decades of American influence in Asia.

Mr. Lilley left China to come to the United States to attend high school and college. Upon graduation from Yale University, he was recruited into the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency. Later he served as the top American diplomat in Taiwan, China and South Korea.

Former Central Intelligence Agency director William Webster says that Ambassador Lilley's family laid the groundwork for his accomplished career.

?This family grew up in a world in which leaders like Mao, Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping were in charge and has watched the progression and evolution of China since that time,? he noted. ?Not many of us can say that. I think that it would be fair to say that there is no one who has learned more and experienced more about China, alive in the United States, than James Lilley.?

During his tenure in Asia, Mr. Lilley saw the United States and communist China enter a period of strategic cooperation in the late 1970s, following several disastrous movements in China. Since then, Mr. Lilley said, the relationship has been buffeted by sharp ups and downs.

President Reagan initially faced disagreements over Taiwan, but ties recovered following a successful trip he made to China in 1984.

?And we got the military programs going, the intelligence programs going,? he said. ?The commercial relationship was going through the roof. Enter George Bush [senior], Tiananmen, it [bilateral ties] goes way down again, hits bottom.?

He says by the time the senior President Bush left office in 1992, though, the two countries had reached some agreements on intellectual property and trade. Mr. Lilley says relations took another sharp downturn after President Clinton decided to link renewal of China's Most Favored Nation trade status to human rights.

?Bang! You're down again,? he said. ?And you're trying to work yourself up out of this, except it took a little longer. And it took a confrontation in the Taiwan Straits in March 1996, where we sent in carriers and they were firing missiles off the coast of Taiwan. But, Jiang Zemin comes here, puts on a [three-cornered] cock hat at Williamsburg. Clinton goes to China, talks about human rights. Everybody comes [away] feeling good about the relationship.?

A new crisis plagued the early days of the current Bush administration. In April 2001, a U.S. spy plane collided with a Chinese fighter jet off the southeast Chinese coast, killing the Chinese pilot. The U.S. plane was forced to land on Chinese territory and the American crewmen were incarcerated. Mr. Lilley said the difference this time, though, is that ties didn't fall as low as they had in the past.

?It didn't happen because they [both countries] knew how to handle it this time,? he explained. ?They [the U.S. crewmen] were out in 11 days. We got the plane back - all cut up, but we got it back. But it was a sense of understanding how you manage this situation.?

Ambassador Lilley said he has learned that although U.S.-China ties go through cyclical progressions, the overall movement is always forward. ?I think my story tells you something else - that out of tragedy, hostility, chaos, failure and success, there can come real progress,? he added. ?And that in this era to come, that we've got to ride the streams of history that carry us forward, and not get tied down into endless semantic battles with the Chinese over Taiwan independence, use of force, one China, two systems - it's too much for us to handle.?

Ambassador Lilley said the two countries have to figure out a way to live with each other. He added that Washington and Beijing have tested the limits of their cooperation and confrontation, and that many methods are, in his words, ?still in play.?