Lilley headed the China desk at the CIA while President Jimmy Carter was in the White House, and it was his hardheaded analysis that led the Carter Administration to leave the CIA out of the loop as he moved toward recognition of Beijing. I was standing in line with him at the opening of the Chinese Embassy in the old Windsor Park Hotel when Richard Holbrook spotted us and said to the ambassador that he didn’t know why Jim was even invited, because “if he’d had it his way, you wouldn’t even have an embassy here.”
Lilley was born in China. He was fluent in Chinese and understood China. He was a Yalie, like his friend George H.W. Bush, but had devoted a lifetime to keeping the communists from ruling the nation that was his second home. He served in the Army, the CIA, the National Security Council and the State Department and taught at Johns Hopkins.
In 1983 Jim was serving as our representative in Taiwan. He would later be posted as ambassador to Korea at least in part because the boys in Beijing would go bonkers if we moved anyone directly from Taipei to the mainland. So, important as his job in Korea might be, it also served as a sort of laundry that allowed President Bush later to name him ambassador to China.
In February of that year, the PRC — or, as we diehards still called the place, Red China — applied, asked or demanded membership in the Asian Development Bank. The problem was, of course, that Taiwan (or “The Republic of China on Taiwan”) was already a member. Beijing wanted Taiwan out and her negotiators said since there is only one China, they would not join unless Taiwan was ousted forthwith.
Ronald Reagan’s secretary of State at the time was George Schultz, who wisely asked Jim to come over and advise him on what we should do. President Reagan, to his credit, wasn’t about to abandon Taiwan, but didn’t want a crisis by blocking an important step toward bringing Beijing into the world economic and trading community.
Jim and I had lunch after he met with Schultz, to whom he had given the advice that the secretary would follow. He said he asked Schultz whether he’d ever been accosted in Hong Kong by someone wanting to sell him a watch. “If you were interested in buying one,” Jim said, “you would refuse to pay the initial price the fellow asked, and when he wouldn’t meet your price, you’d turn and walk away.” At that point, Jim said, the watch vendor would realize he wasn’t going to get what he wanted and would chase you down the street to sell you the watch at a much lower and more reasonable price.
“You wouldn’t get mad at the vendor,” Lilley told Schultz, “because you could hardly blame him for wanting to get all he could for the watch, but if you paid his price you would be a fool.”
Schultz took Jim’s advice and told the communist government in Beijing that the U.S. would support its application for membership, but only if it dropped its demand that Taiwan be kicked out, figuratively turning his back on Beijing. Beijing chased after him, of course, and as a result both Beijing and Taipei ended up members of what at the time was the only body in which both could be found.
Jim knew more about China and the Chinese than anyone of his generation. He was loved in Taipei, respected in Beijing and an invaluable adviser to his own government. It is ironic that he died while a new president as naïve as Carter was on his way to China to deal with the nation that Jim had long predicted would represent our greatest challenge of the century.
Barack ObamaBarack ObamaObama to appear on 'The Daily Show' with Trevor Noah Brian Williams slams fake news Obama: I absolutely faced racism while in office MORE and his advisers won’t have the option of consulting Lilley, which is their loss as well as ours, but I at least hope that Jim’s memoir, China Hands, written with his son, was on the president’s reading list as he headed east.
Keene is chairman of the American Conservative Union and a managing associate with the Carmen Group, a Washington-based governmental consulting firm.