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China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia Paperback – July 5, 2005


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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This important contribution to the crowded field of histories detailing Sino-U.S. relations in the 20th century is singular in its scope and perspective. James Lilley, who served in various posts all over East Asia, offers firsthand accounts of America's crude "gunboat, oil can, and Bible" diplomacy in Asia at the turn of the last century through the more nuanced approach at the end of the Cold War. Lilley's unique personal history distinguishes his version of events from similar efforts by journalists. Members of Lilley's family, since his father took work with Standard Oil's China office in 1916, have at different times been helpless witnesses, tortured participants and active U.S. patriots in Asia throughout what has arguably been the region's most tumultuous century since the Mongol invasion. Though written in a blunt, unadorned style befitting its author, a 20-year veteran of the CIA, this book exposes Lilley's ardent love for his family and his country. His devotion to the latter is apparent in his total lack of self-doubt in passages detailing illegal CIA operations in Laos and the war in Vietnam. His vivid and enlightening account of the Tiananmen Square massacre includes details that could be known only by him, as he was U.S. ambassador to China at the time. That chapter, which details the strafing of the American embassy by Chinese soldiers and the clandestine housing of dissident Fang Lizhi, is among several in which the book is aided by Lilley's high perch in government. Written with his son, a journalist, his candid account is a must-read for students of Asia and intelligence work.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

"A real-life boys' adventure story that will have many grown-ups staying up past their bedtimes....filled with gripping anecdotes skillfully rendered." -- The New York Times
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 448 pages
  • Publisher: PublicAffairs; New edition edition (July 5, 2005)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1586483439
  • ISBN-13: 978-1586483432
  • Product Dimensions: 8.3 x 5.5 x 1.1 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (24 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #506,447 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

I really appreciate Mr. Lilley's effort and achievement on his CIA and diplomat career.
Purple Tang
And while the book is clearly China from his viewpoint, his view is such that it gives a very interesting picture of China over the last several decades.
David N. Thielen
I would love to show example after example but it is so awful that I dont want to look at it anymore or spend anymore time thinking about it.
Jeremy C. Smith

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

30 of 36 people found the following review helpful By Gordon Cucullu on May 5, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Ambassador Jim Lilley is one of a very small set of children who grew up in pre-Mao China. Unlike most of them who were missionary kids, Lilley was the son of a prominent businessman. Those tumultuous early years formed the moral core of his character which served him in excellent stead throughout his adult career. Throughout a life that spanned revolution, war and terror, Jim Lilley has remained faithful to his ideals, his country and his family. This book reflects the extraordinary breath and depth of his experience, always filtered through his confidence of knowing what was the proper thing to do in situations that were often confusing and challenging.
Jim Lilley always drew the tough assignments. He served during the fractious days of war in Indochina while a CIA employee, under the intense limelight of the Seoul Olympics, through a painful democratization process in South Korea, and during the brutality of the Tienamin Square crackdown by Chinese forces. Regardless of the challenges he has always represented himself and his country faithfully and well. He was a cerebral and consummate diplomat and a tough, loyal soldier. His deeds shine from the pages despite the self-effacing tone with which he writes.
This book is a great read. Whether you are a student of Asia or simply trying to get your arms around a difficult but most critical area of the world, you need to have Lilley's book. It is written with style and grace, and includes drama, tragedy and humor. This is a book you will want to keep on your shelf and recommend to friends. Buy it today; you'll be glad you did.
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13 of 15 people found the following review helpful By Peter Durward Harris HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on September 23, 2004
Format: Hardcover
The first thing to make clear is that this is, first of all, an autobiography. While it provides an interesting insight into the life of a CIA agent who later became a diplomat, it does not provide a comprehensive historical account of the political events mentioned in the book. So, historians may feel that this book is incomplete but may still find this book interesting as it inevitably presents a different perspective from other books.

James Lilley was born and raised in China while his father, who worked for an American oil company, was assigned to its China office, so he had an interest in China from childhood. Throughout the book, it is clear that James belongs to a close-knit family. It is possible that you may find too many early chapters devoted to his childhood and the eventual suicide of one of his brothers. You can, of course, skip these chapters but they help to set the context for James' career.

His career took him to a number of Asian countries, originally as a CIA agent but later as a diplomat. He was USA representative to Taiwan in the early eighties, USA Ambassador to Korea in the mid-eighties and USA Ambassador to China during the late eighties. His account of the troubles in Tiananmen Square is therefore particularly interesting, as is his perspective on relations between China, America and Taiwan - a very complex issue.

In his earlier career with the CIA, James explains the difficulty of working there during the fifties and sixties, when China was all but closed to the outside world. He also acknowledges the importance of Richard Nixon in breaking the ice between America and China, though he correctly points out that deteriorating Chinese relations with the Soviet Union made Nixon's task easier than it would otherwise have been.
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22 of 28 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on May 29, 2004
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
Lilley is an impressive man whose life took him to interesting places and important events. However, this book is probably most suitable for those with a serious, even scholarly, interest in modern Asian history or similar fields. Parts of the book on growing up in pre-WW II China, on service with the CIA in Laos during the war in Viet Nam (but no derring-do for you spy fans), on political events in Korea and China in the 1980's--all these will be of interest. One minor surprise for me was that Lilley, after spending his childhood in China, could only speak a little 'street Chinese' he learned from his 'ama' and had to actually learn the language in the US.
Unfortunately for me, between these parts are prolonged intervals of almost diary-like, detailed accounts of diplomatic dealings, meetings, memos, conversations, personal and family life, etc that markedly dulled the book for me. Also, as Lilley says, it is indeed a personal memoir, so there is a lot about his family and, most especially, his older brother who clearly had a huge and, unfortunately, saddening influence on him. So much so that much of the first section of the book centers around the remarkable but flawed brother rather than the author, who then returns to this topic several times later on, quoting repeatedly from the brother's letters and diaries.
If you are interested in foreign affairs, you'll like reading of the famous events the author witnessed, even played a role in, but I found that much of the book dragged through excessive detail that will bore all but serious diplomacy buffs. I respect the author's grief over his beloved brother but found it much too personal for my own enjoyment.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful By C. Davis VINE VOICE on January 4, 2006
Format: Hardcover
This book is part autobiography, part family history, part spy thriller, and part diplomatic history. James Lilley's life and family was shaped by the collapse and rebirth of China. Even his tours in the CIA in Laos and the Philippines and his tour as the Ambassador to Korea seemed to be shaped by the giant leviathan that is modern China.

Prior to 1800, China was about 25% of the world's economy. By the time that Ambassador Lilley's father worked in China prior to World War II, China was a broken country - occupied by Japan and exploited by western powers. The United States, perhaps uniquely, had an interest in China both as a venue for evangelical Christians to recruit and as a potential trading partner. As the child of a prominent business man, that was the world where James Lilley grew up.

Today we have a China that is the regional hegemon in East Asia. The United States has a vested - some would say symbiotic - trade relationship with China. In terms of virtually every other issue with China, we find ourselves in a tight adversarial dance in terms of Taiwan, human rights, intellectual property, and China's own war on terrorism against Chinese Uighurs.

In the case of Taiwan, the Republic of China views itself as the rightful descendent of Sun Yat-Sen's successful revolt against the last Emperor. Likewise, by emphasizing Sun Yat-Sen's socialistic leanings, the People's Republic of China considers itself the rightful "one China" and Taiwan as some sort of breakaway province.

How we got from the reality of a weak dysfunctional China in 1939 to the current balance of power in East Asia is discussed in the form of a very personal family history by James Lilley.
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China Hands: Nine Decades of Adventure, Espionage, and Diplomacy in Asia
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