James Lilley dies at 81; ambassador to China and CIA operative

James R. Lilley, a longtime CIA operative in Asia who served as ambassador to China during the Tiananmen Square crackdown and was regarded as one of the most pragmatic voices on the modern Sino-American relationship, has died. He was 81.

Lilley died Thursday at a Washington, D.C., hospital of complications related to prostate cancer.

Lilley, born in China, the son of an oilman and a schoolteacher, had a storied career as an intelligence officer in Asia. Gruff with a no-nonsense manner and a keen eye for detail that peppered his reports from the field, Lilley was singular in the fractious world of China-watching in that he was respected by both Communist China and Taiwan and across the political spectrum at home.

Alone among U.S. officials, Lilley served as a U.S. ambassador to China and as the top American representative to Taiwan.

“Because he was raised in China, Jim Lilley had the ability to view China as an ordinary country with no romanticism about his views,” said J. Stapleton Roy, who succeeded him as ambassador to China in 1991. “On the one hand, he could be very critical of China. On the other hand, he could weigh in when you weren’t expecting it with a defense of our relationship with China.”

The height of the public portion of Lilley’s career came during the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Because of a close relationship with then-President George H.W. Bush -- Lilley had served as the CIA station chief in the U.S. mission in Beijing when Bush was chief of mission in the early 1970s -- his graphic reports about the dramatic events unfolding in Beijing were often sent directly to the president.

Lilley was a harsh critic of the crackdown. He housed top Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi in the embassy for a year and a month before the Chinese allowed Fang to leave for the United States.

But Lilley also played a crucial role in arranging a secret trip by two senior U.S. officials to Beijing after the crackdown to assure China that the United States valued its relationship with Beijing.

James Roderick Lilley was born Jan. 15, 1928, in Qingdao, a resort in Shandong province famed for its German-run brewery and its white sand beaches. He had an idyllic childhood in an international community, with a Chinese nanny who attended to his every need.

Lilley idolized his eldest brother, Frank, whom he would follow to Yale and into the U.S. Army.

Lilley was an 18-year-old serving at Ft. Dix, N.J., when he learned that Frank had committed suicide in 1946 at a U.S. military base outside Hiroshima, Japan. Lilley dedicated his 2004 memoir, “China Hands,” to his brother, who “died young and pure so that we could carry on.”

Lilley joined the CIA in 1951. He started his career, he wrote, “as a foot soldier in America’s covert efforts to keep Asia from being dominated by Communist China.” He helped insert agents into China, gathered intelligence in Hong Kong and battled against the communist takeover in Laos. He served as ambassador to South Korea, among other posts.

Lilley was involved in bureaucratic battles that resonate today. In the early 1980s as chief of the American Institute in Taiwan, the de facto U.S. Embassy there, Lilley clashed with State Department officials over arms sales to Taiwan. Senior State Department officials wanted to bend to Chinese pressure and agree to a cutoff date; Lilley thought this was unwise and represented an unnecessary present to Beijing.

In the end, the Reagan administration agreed in a letter to the Chinese government that “there would naturally be a decrease in the need for arms by Taiwan,” a clause that has bedeviled U.S. relations with China each time Washington agrees to sell Taiwan another batch of weapons.

Lilley is survived by his wife, Sally Booth Lilley; children Jeffrey, Doug and Michael; a sister; and six grandchildren.

Pomfret writes for the Washington Post.