Remembering Former U.S. Envoy To China

James R. Lilley, the U.S. ambassador to China during the Tiananmen Square crisis in 1989, died last week from complications connected to prostate cancer. He was 81. J. Stapleton Roy, who succeeded Lilley as ambassador to China, says when Sino-U.S. ties began to improve, Lilley played an important role.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

This country lost one of its most influential China hands last week. James Lilley died at age 81. He was a uniquely important figure in U.S.-China policy. He was born in China and spoke fluent Mandarin. He joined the CIA and rose to be a senior Asia specialist and served as ambassador to both China and South Korea, as well as serving as the senior representative in Taiwan. His opinions were sought by many in Washington, including this program, where he commented on not only on China, but on relations throughout Asia. Here he is in 2003 during a tense moment of saber-rattling from North Korea.

Ambassador JAMES LILLEY (U.S. Ambassador to China and South Korea, Taiwan Senior Representative): I think China's got to work with us because a nightmare for China: Is Japan getting nuclear weapons or Taiwan getting nuclear weapons? So, this is in the offing. It's the sort of the baseball bat in the corner. It's Banquo's ghost hovering behind you. But it's there.

SIEGEL: James Lilley was followed as U.S. ambassador in Beijing by J. Stapleton Roy, who was also born in China and who joins us now. Welcome to the program.

Ambassador J. STAPLETON ROY (Former Ambassador to China): Thank you.

SIEGEL: If you had to sum up in a nutshell James Lilley's role in U.S.-China policy over the years, what would you say?

Amb. ROY: I would say that Jim was a wonderful representative for his country. He began his career during the period of the greatest hostility between the United States and China. And yet he liked China. He liked the Chinese people. He didn't like the system of government there. And when our relations turned for the better, Jim played a significant role in improving relations.

SIEGEL: When you say the worst period in U.S.-China relations, deep in the Cold War after the Communist takeover in China.

Amb. ROY: Jim joined the U.S. government in the early '50s, which is right after the Korean War, when U.S. troops were fighting Chinese troops in Korea. So, the hostility between our two countries was at the all-time high at that time.

SIEGEL: He was the U.S. ambassador in Beijing when China crushed the Tiananmen Square protests. And from what I've read, his reactions to those events seem to defy any simple ideological prescription. He was a very subtle diplomat it seems.

Amb. ROY: Jim had no illusions. Therefore, Jim was not disillusioned by what the Chinese did. He was very disappointed to see it happen, but Jim would've expected the Chinese to behave that way in order to shore up the regime.

SIEGEL: And as ambassador he gave shelter to a very famous Chinese dissident Fang Lizhi.

Amb. ROY: That's correct. And that exposed him to a lot of difficulties during his first year in Beijing.

SIEGEL: And yet, somehow he managed to retain credibility both with the People's Republic of China, Beijing, and also with Taiwan.

Amb. ROY: Jim was one of those rare individuals who had very strong opinions that he was not afraid to state, but he was opinionated. One of his colleagues recalls that at one point Jim was expressing his opinions very strongly and a junior official spoke up and said, one of your facts is wrong. And Jim said, in that case, he said, I'll have to rethink my opinion. Now, that's not typical behavior.

SIEGEL: ´┐Żof senior diplomats and government official.

Amb. ROY: Even of senior non-diplomats.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Amb. ROY: But this is one reason why Jim was liked by his staff. They were not afraid to speak up in his presence, and Jim was never afraid to express his own opinions.

SIEGEL: Ambassador Roy, thank you very much for talking with us about your friend, the late U.S. Ambassador James Lilley. Thank you, sir.

Amb. ROY: He's remembered very warmly by his friends.

SIEGEL: J. Stapleton Roy, former U.S. ambassador to China.

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