James Lilley, American Institute in Taiwan director from 1981 to 1984, died in Washington on Thursday from complications related to prostate cancer. He was 81.
In his long career with the US government, Lilley also served as US ambassador to South Korea from 1986 to 1989, and to China from 1989 to 1991.
Prior to entering the diplomatic field, Lilley worked at the CIA for 27 years, which he joined in 1951. His postings at the agency included China, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Laos, Taiwan, Vietnam and Hong Kong.
When the US opened its liaison office in Beijing in 1971, Lilley became the first “declared” US intelligence official in China and the CIA’s first station chief in the capital.
Lilley, who later also came to be known as Li Jieming (李潔明), was born in Qingdao, Shandong, in 1928, where his father and role model, Frank Lilley, worked as a salesman for Standard Oil.
In 2004, Lilley published his memoir China Hands, which eloquently described his formative childhood in China, his years as a CIA operative and the power struggles between China, Taiwan and the US, including his first-hand experience of the Tiananmen Square Massacre.
After his ambassadorship in Beijing, Lilley became a forceful — and public — proponent of greater US support for Taiwan, efforts that he continued after being appointed assistant secretary of defense for international affairs from 1991 to 1993. He often clashed with the US Department of State over arms sales to Taiwan, arguing that it would be unwise to grant Beijing the cutoff date that it sought.
Expressing her condolences to the family on Friday, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton called him “one of our nation’s finest diplomats.”
In its obituary, the Washington Post described Lilley as “one of the most pragmatic voices on the modern Sino-American relationship.”
In a statement on Friday, former US president George H.W. Bush, who was close to Lilley, described him as “a most knowledgeable and effective ambassador who served with great honor and distinction.”
In a statement, Taichung Mayor Jason Hu (胡志強) said Lilley had made many contributions to and spoken for Taiwan’s interests.
“His death is Taiwan’s loss,” he said.
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