James R. Lilley

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James R. Lilley
An older white man in a gray business suit and glasses shakes hand with an older Asian man wearing a light grey outfit. Other asian men in similar outfits stands in the background. All are in a formal room with curtains and molding.
United States Ambassador to South Korea
In office
President Ronald Reagan
Succeeded by Donald Gregg
United States Ambassador to China
In office
President George H.W. Bush
Preceded by Winston Lord
Succeeded by J. Stapleton Roy
Personal details
Born (1928-01-15)January 15, 1928
Qingdao, China
Died November 12, 2009(2009-11-12) (aged 81)
Washington, DC

James Roderick Lilley (simplified Chinese: 李洁明; traditional Chinese: 李潔明; pinyin: Lǐ Jiémíng); January 15, 1928 – November 12, 2009) was an American diplomat who served as United States Ambassador to China at the time of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

Born to American parents in China, he learned Mandarin at a young age before his family moved back to the United States at the outbreak of World War II. Lilley served in the United States Army before earning an undergraduate degree from Yale University and a masters in international relations from George Washington University. He then joined the Central Intelligence Agency, where he would work for nearly 30 years in a variety of Asian countries prior to becoming a diplomat. Before being appointed Ambassador to China in 1989, he was director of the American Institute in Taiwan, the unofficial American diplomatic mission in that country, and as Ambassador to South Korea. Following suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests, Lilley was critical of the Chinese crackdown and harbored a prominent dissident in the embassy, but worked to prevent long-term damage to relations between the United States and China. Following his retirement, he published a memoir and worked as a fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.


Early life and education[edit]

James Lilley was born in the resort town of Qingdao in coastal Shandong Province, China, on January 15, 1928, the son of American expatriate parents.[1] His father, an oil executive who had moved to China to work for Standard Oil in 1916, and his mother, a teacher, hired a Chinese nanny to help raise him, and he spoke Mandarin fluently from a young age in addition to French and English.

In pre-war China, Lilley befriended and played catch with a Japanese soldier; but, in 1940, soon after the outbreak of World War II, his family returned to the United States as fighting between Japanese and Chinese forces began to ravage the coastal regions of China. In the United States, he attended Phillips Exeter Academy and served in the United States Army at Fort Dix, New Jersey from 1945-1946. During his army service, Lilley's elder brother, whom he revered and who was an American soldier stationed in Hiroshima, Japan, committed suicide.

After Lilley's army service, he earned a bachelor's degree from Yale University and later a master's degree in international relations from George Washington University before studying classical Chinese at Hong Kong University and Columbia University.[2] Lilley began his career in government by joining the Central Intelligence Agency in 1951, a result of his interest in answering the call to public service at the beginning of the Cold War.[1][2] In 1954, he married Sally Booth, with whom he had three sons.[1]


As a CIA operative, Lilley worked in countries across Asia, including Laos, Japan, Hong Kong, Taiwan, and China.[3] In Laos, he worked to undermine the Communist insurgency, and he helped to insert a number of CIA agents into China.[1] By 1975, Lilley was appointed to the position of national intelligence officer for China, which made him the highest-ranked expert on China in the American intelligence community. Early in the administration of Ronald Reagan, he was appointed to the National Security Council, where he served as the senior expert on east Asia.[2] From 1981-1984, he served as Director of the American Institute in Taiwan, which serves as the unofficial diplomatic liaison to the government of the Republic of China.[3] The United States does not have formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan, so Lilley was in effect an ambassador to Taiwan in all but title. There, he resisted attempts by the State Department to end arms sales to Taiwan, which they hoped would lead to better relations with China. Lilley's resistance resulted in a compromise in which the United States committed to gradually reduce arms sales to Taiwan with no timeline for them to do so, and to this day, the United States has not ended the practice of selling arms to Taiwan.[1] During 1985, he worked as the Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian Affairs. In the private sector, he taught about China at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies and consulted for companies doing business in East Asia.[2] In 1986, Ronald Reagan appointed Lilley the United States Ambassador to South Korea, where he served until 1989.[3] His tenure in Korea coincided with profound political change in that nation; the year after his arrival, South Korea held the first real Presidential election in nearly two decades.[2]

Lilley was appointed by President George H.W. Bush to be Ambassador to China in 1989, becoming the only American diplomat to head diplomatic missions in both mainland China and Taiwan.[2][3] Bush and Lilley had a longstanding friendship that began when Lilley was the head of station for the CIA in Beijing in the early 1970s; at the time, Bush was the chief of mission there. This personal relationship meant that Lilley often had the ear of the President on issues relating to China, and many of his missives home were read directly by Bush.[1] In order to gain a better understanding of what was happening on the ground, Lilley began to bike regularly through the streets of Beijing soon after his arrival. Thus, he was familiar with the grievances of Chinese students who later that year participated in protests in Tiananmen Square, and sympathized with their interest in a more open government and society.[2] He criticized the Chinese government following the violent suppression of those protests, which garnered widespread international attention and condemnation. In addition, he harbored the political dissident Fang Lizhi inside the embassy for 18 months before the Chinese government allowed him to enter exile in the United States.[1] But despite his sympathy with the students' cause, Lilley argued against hasty action by the United States government such as the severing of ties, believing that such action would not have the intended effect.[2] He also arranged for a secret trip by two high-placed United States officials intended to reassure the Chinese government that the United States wished to continue a relationship between the two nations.[1] He did so, he later said, out of a belief that, "America...could contribute in constructive ways to a more open China."[2] Despite his criticism, he remained respected by authorities in China, many of whom turned out at farewell parties when Lilley left China and retired from the diplomatic corps in 1991. His successor argued that Lilley's childhood familiarity with Chinese society gave him a unique perspective on Chinese culture and government.[2]

Retirement and death[edit]

Following his retirement from government service, Lilley became a Senior Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute focusing on East Asian relations and continued writing and speaking about the relationship between the United States and China. In 2004, Lilley published a memoir, China Hands, dedicated to his brother, which dealt with his early exposure to Asia living in China with his family and his professional career.[3]

Lilley died on November 12, 2009 at Sibley Hospital in Washington, DC from complications related to prostate cancer.[1]


  1. ^ a b c d e f g h i Pomfret, John (November 14, 2009). "JAMES R. LILLEY, 81: U.S. ambassador to China served during crackdown at Tiananmen Square". The Washington Post. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h i j Stout, David (November 14, 2009). "James R. Lilley, 81, Envoy in Tiananmen Era, Dies". The New York Times. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 
  3. ^ a b c d e "U.S. Ambassadors to the People's Republic of China (1979 - Present)". Embassy of the United States, Beijing, China. Retrieved 2009-11-14. 

External links[edit]

Diplomatic posts
Preceded by
Charles T. Cross
Director of the American Institute in Taiwan
Succeeded by
Harry E.T. Thayer
Preceded by
Richard L. Walker
US Ambassador to Korea
Succeeded by
Donald Gregg
Preceded by
Winston Lord
US Ambassador to China
Succeeded by
J. Stapleton Roy