WASHINGTON: "I hardly recognize Beijing anymore. It has changed so much, " James Lilley, former US ambassador to China, said in a recent interview with Xinhua.
Undated file photo show James Lilley, former US ambassador to China. [Agencies]
It was a rainy summer afternoon. At his home in downtown Washington, the 81-year-old veteran diplomat sitting in a sofa, was recalling his last trip to China in 2004 which took him to Beijing, Shanghai and some other cities in western, central and southern parts of China.
"The change is big," he said, looking out of the window with his fingers crossing in front of his chest.
If anyone could claim to be a China hand, Ambassador Lilley is one of them, undisputed. He has a Chinese name, Jieming Li.
Lilley was born in 1928 in Qingdao, a scenic coastal city in east China's Shandong province, where he spent his first eight years before moving to Tianjin and then Shanghai.
"It was a wonderful life -- wonderful beaches, daily swimmings and schools," Lilley said of his childhood in Qingdao. "Yet all around us was chaos, hates and revolution in China," he added, referring to those days which he would describe as China's semi-colonial period.
According to the ambassador, he stayed in Tianjin for two and a half years and then went to an American school in Shanghai. He did not return to the United States permanently until October 1940.
His connection with China did not cease there. He went back to China in the 1970s, including serving in the US Liaison Office in Beijing between 1973 and 1975. When George H. Bush became US president, Lilley was appointed the top US envoy to China in 1989 and stayed there until 1991.
Talking about the bilateral relations between the two countries, Lilley said, "The important point, in my view, came in 1977 when George Bush senior went there and met with (Chinese leader) Deng (Xiaoping)," after the ice was broken in early 1970s when former US President Richard Nixon made a historic visit to China.
"I think Deng Xiaoping was a strong man, an effective leader," said Lilley, who was present at the above-mentioned meeting between Deng and Bush.
"What can you offer me on the economic development of China," Deng asked Bush at the meeting, Lilley recalled.
"I have a proposal for you -- cooperation on offshore oil exploration," Bush responded.
Both countries did begin cooperation on offshore oil exploration, Lilley said.
"It was not that successful in producing oil. But all sorts of other cooperation came in," he said.
"We did not find much oil, but we did a lot of other things, manufacturing, petrochemicals, steel cooperation, all the other things picked up."