China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia

The Asian Review of Books review James Lilley’s swashbuckling tale of intrigue, parachuting spies into communist Manchuria, and hanging out in Beijing in 1989. Amazon calls it a “must-read for students of Asia and intelligence work, while Asian Review of Books thinks it’s “noticeably lacking in sensation and scandal.”

The young China hand is recruited into the CIA at the outbreak of the Korean War, one of a remarkable one hundred members of the Yale Class of ’51 to answer the call. Two years later he is posted to Hong Kong, where the rookie agent poses as a HKU literature student while trying not to run afoul of “the landlord” (Hong Kong Special Branch). Here he also just barely resists the siren calls of the “lovely and mysterious Miss Lee.” She pops up conveniently during a second Hong Kong tour while Lilley is “reading the tea leaves” of the Cultural Revolution, and a third time as he transits the city en route to Beijing in 1973. Perhaps there’s something to that Enslaved Beauties are the Bait! reputation after all.

— Asian Review of Books

China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia by James Lilley

Pity the Tourist Board of the ’50s in selling Hong Kong as anything other than a hotbed of espionage and intrigue: Hollywood had its own agenda. Target Hong Kong: Blasting the World’s Worst Spy Nest! shrieks the poster for one B-movie. Hong Kong, City of Sin and Violence, where Enslaved Beauties are the Bait and a Bullet is the Pay-Off! is the helpful message of another. But what was it really like to be “out in the cold” in post-war Hong Kong?

American James Lilley, with the aid of his journalist son, describes that experience and much more in China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia, his frank and often moving memoir of a long life in public service.

Born and raised in pre-war Tsingtao (Qingdao) from 1928, Lilley spent twenty-seven years as an undercover CIA operative in some of the hottest outposts of Cold War Asia. Posted to Beijing in 1973 as the “declared agent” in America’s first diplomatic mission to the People’s Republic, he caught the eye of up-and-coming Ambassador George H.W. Bush. Through this association Lilley later joined the U.S. State Department, ultimately serving as Taiwan representative and Ambassador to South Korea and China, each time at critical moments in those countries’ recent histories (including Tiananmen). From beginning to end, his personal narrative neatly parallels the larger story of America’s 20th century engagement with Asia.

China Hands, like the author’s life, divides naturally into three parts. In the first Lilley describes an idyllic boyhood of Chinese amahs and international schools, largely insulated from the growing chaos of ’20s and ’30s China. His father had been a mildly successful Standard Oil salesman since 1917, regularly travelling the Yangtze, but even the mildly successful led very comfortable lives in pre-war Tsingtao. Only the bewildering new assertiveness of the Japanese — within the foreign settlement and in stories brought back from occupied Pyongyang by the author’s elder brother — hint at an era soon to end.

China’s “treaty port” life and its descent into the chaos of WWII is a story often told. What stands out about Lilley’s are the struggles of his sensitive eldest brother Frank, who meets a tragic end outside the incinerated remains of Hiroshima. Frank’s moving story reappears throughout the book, providing its spiritual backbone, as the younger Lilley searches for lessons in his idol’s premature death. He credits his “moral conscience” and a determination to lead a life of pragmatic public service — avoiding the dangers of “emotionalism” and “disillusionment” at all costs — to his idealistic brother’s legacy.

The young China hand is recruited into the CIA at the outbreak of the Korean War, one of a remarkable one hundred members of the Yale Class of ’51 to answer the call. Two years later he is posted to Hong Kong, where the rookie agent poses as a HKU literature student while trying not to run afoul of “the landlord” (Hong Kong Special Branch). Here he also just barely resists the siren calls of the “lovely and mysterious Miss Lee.” She pops up conveniently during a second Hong Kong tour while Lilley is “reading the tea leaves” of the Cultural Revolution, and a third time as he transits the city en route to Beijing in 1973. Perhaps there’s something to that Enslaved Beauties are the Bait! reputation after all.

Lilley graduates to parachuting spies into Communist Manchuria and arming Hmong insurgents to fight the North Vietnamese, and his chronicle of two eventful decades in covert Asian ops makes good reading. Yet despite his presence at some of the CIA’s most controversial trouble spots — `60s Cambodia and Laos, for example — this middle section of the book is noticeably lacking in sensation and scandal. This may be due in part to Lilley’s personality — he seems a rather straight arrow — but the retired intelligence officer also admits to remaining fiercely loyal to his former employer and the demands of confidentiality. Of course, the “Company” also vetted the book.

Public exposure by “muckraking” journalist Jack Anderson brings the CIA’s Beijing station chief in from the cold, but his relationship with newly-elected Vice-President Bush soon launches him on a second career in diplomacy. Historians will find much to mine in the final chapters of China Hands, which provide a high-level insider’s account of American strategy in `80s Asia, and some intimate portraits of the region’s leaders. Deng Xiaoping sizes up George Bush as a politician with a future. Chiang Ching-kuo juggles the challenges of Sino-American rapprochement with his determination to bring democracy to Taiwan. Chun Doo Hwan blinks at the eleventh hour, and the shadow of martial law is lifted from the Seoul Olympics.

Few diplomats have been dropped into a hornets nest quite like the one that greeted newly-appointed U.S. Ambassador James Lilley in May of 1989. His retelling of the events of June 4th and their aftermath from the perspective of America’s senior representative in Beijing adds absorbing new details to a story that always compels. Dissident astrophysicist Fang Lizhi’s nine-month embassy asylum and American efforts to secure his safe departure from China are fully described.

China Hands is a thoughtful and informative memoir that traces the course of American foreign policy in 20th century Asia through the extraordinary career of one cold warrior and his family. That fate seemed determined to repeatedly draw him back to his birthplace is a phenomenon familiar to every China hand.