James Lilley was born in Qingdao, China in 1928, where his father was working for Standard Oil. He remained in China until 1940, having lived in Qingdao, Tianjin, Jiujiang, Jiangxi Province, and Shanghai. He served in the U.S. Army as well as in the Merchant Marines from 1945 to 1947. After graduating from Yale University with a BA in 1951, he was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force. He went on to receive his MA from George Washington University and became a graduate of the National War College in 1972.
Ambassador Lilley was in the CIA until 1975, serving in Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Thailand and Beijing and as the national intelligence officer for China (1975-78). He then changed careers to work for Hunt Oil (1978-80) and United Technologies (1979-80). He served on the National Security Council's East Asia staff (1981-82) before becoming the director of the American Institute in Taiwan (1982-84). He worked for Otis Elevator (1984-85) and then became the deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asia (1985-86).
He was the U. S. ambassador to Korea (1986-89) and to China (1989-91), and assistant secretary of defense for international security affairs (1991-93). From 1993 to 2006, he worked at the American Enterprise Institute, where he edited six books on the Chinese military. In 2004 he wrote China Hands, a reflection on his life and career that was published in English, Chinese, Korean and Japanese.
Ambassador Lilley passed away on November 12, 2009.