Shelley Drake HAWKS

Photograph of President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai on 21 February 1972; Nixon’s visit to China marked the opening of relations between China and the United States. Chairman Mao relied on Zhou to initiate and formalize much of the arrangements between the countries. NATIONAL ARCHIVES.

Considered one of the most important politicians in the Communist revolution, Zhou Enlai was the first premier of the People’s Republic of China and chief diplomat for Chinese Communist Party leader Mao Zedong. Zhou’s less ideological approach was pivotal in determining the future of Communism in China.

One of the towering figures of China’s Communist revolution, Zhou Enlai was premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) from 1949 until his death in 1976, chief diplomat for Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Mao Zedong, and mentor to CCP general secretary Deng Xiaoping, among others. Zhou Enlai is typically remembered as the revolution’s second-most important politician. He was the functionary who made Chairman Mao’s policies operational. Serving the Communist Party for a half-century in both international and domestic affairs, Zhou played a critical role in China’s rise to power in the twentieth century.

True to the meaning of his given name “Enlai” (“Coming of Grace”), Zhou excelled at resolving logistical problems and mediating between opposing groups. He is known for his negotiations with U.S. secretary of state Henry Kissinger that culminated in the signing of the Shanghai Communique in 1972, the agreement that struck a compromise on the thorny issue of Taiwan and culminated in the reestablishment of normal relations between the People’s Republic of China and the United States. In 1964 and again in 1975 Zhou urged the adoption of the Four Modernizations, a new policy direction emphasizing investment in advanced technology and economic construction that set the stage for Deng Xiaoping’s Second Revolution in the post–Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) period.

Zhou Enlai rose quickly to a leadership position during the so-called United Front phase of Chinese politics (1924–1927), when his interpersonal skills were particularly useful for mediating between the Chinese Nationalist Party (Guomindang), China’s Communist Party, and the Soviet Union’s Communist International. Zhou first entered politics as a student activist and journalist in Tianjin during the May Fourth Movement of 1919. Exposed to Marxist ideas for the first time while studying in Japan, Zhou grew increasingly committed to Communist ideology after he was jailed for six months in Tianjin for participating in street protests. In 1920 he joined the wave of Chinese youth traveling to Europe to participate in work-study opportunities. He became known among the overseas Chinese community in France as an energetic and resourceful revolutionary organizer and publicist. Returning to China in 1924, Zhou was appointed secretary of the Communist Party of the Guangdong-Guangxi region and political director of the Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou (Canton), a position that allowed him to earn the trust of revolutionary military officers.

Zhou would continue to be admired by a variety of constituencies both inside and outside the Communist Party because he was perceived to be a force for moderation and openness. Zhou personally handled all of Chairman Mao’s foreign policy initiatives throughout the half-century of their political partnership. Mao himself rarely traveled abroad and typically left the details of his policies to others. Even in the rare instances when Mao met personally with a head of state, such as his historic meeting with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin in Moscow to cement the Sino-Soviet Agreement of 1950 or with U.S. president Richard Nixon in Beijing to open up relations with the United States in 1972, the chairman relied on Zhou to initiate and finalize all arrangements. Thus, it is hard to distinguish the degree to which Zhou should be credited with the substance, as opposed to the mere execution, of these momentous shifts in policies.

Some analysts portray Zhou as a mere appendage of Mao, a skilled implementer of another man’s strategic vision, whereas others portray Zhou as an independent force in his own right, a self-effacing figure who discretely shaped and expanded the broad field of action that Mao afforded him. The specifics of each case must be sorted out before an informed evaluation of Zhou’s significance can be determined. Regarding the 1972 opening of relations with the United States, for example, not Zhou but rather his foreign minister, Marshall Chen Yi, first advocated the conceptual shift toward détente with the United States in a strategic report submitted to Mao in 1969. Zhou could never have acted on Chen Yi’s recommendation to improve relations with the United States without Mao’s explicit endorsement. Yet, after Mao gave approval for this broad policy shift and granted the request of the U.S. Ping Pong team to visit Beijing, Zhou orchestrated the complex preparations leading up to Nixon’s visit with intelligence and finesse.

A Symbiotic Pair

Retrospectively, Zhou has won praise from those who see him as representing a more benign and cosmopolitan alternative to the Chinese Communism championed by Mao. Considering the calamitous result of Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, Zhou does seem to stack up favorably by comparison. However, comparing the first and second most important Chinese revolutionaries like this presumes that their careers can be disentangled from one another. This is only partially true. Although they began as rivals, the two men became an indissoluble symbiotic pair after Zhou subordinated himself to Mao’s leadership over the course of the Long March (1934–1935). Actually their personal relationship was always strained, but they managed to forge a potent political partnership despite their contrasting personalities. Zhou was by nature a prudent and tolerant team player, whereas Mao was an uncompromising rebel, polarizing and overbearing. Mao was the brains of the dyad, and Zhou, its arms and legs. Their careers became so intertwined that Zhou must be considered accountable, at least to some degree, for all of Mao’s destructive policies. He was the technocrat who enabled them to be implemented. If Zhou had sided with the leaders trying to restrain Mao rather than constantly aligning himself with Mao, the immense human suffering caused by the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution might have been limited considerably. Zhou Enlai may be credited with having mitigated some of the destructiveness of the Red Guard movement by stationing guards, for example, to defend valuable cultural properties like the Forbidden City, but he also prolonged the Cultural Revolution in that his willingness to modify the excesses of the movement kept it operational and seemingly palatable.

Although his real opinions were often shrouded in secrecy, Zhou disagreed with Mao on the critical issue of how to pace and structure China’s economic development. Zhou expressed disagreement with Mao’s so-called Little Leap in 1956, the precursor to the more extreme Great Leap Forward campaign that Mao devised in 1958. Zhou thought the targets for growth that Mao was advocating were overambitious and recommended scaling them back. Mao became angry at Zhou for suggesting a slower timetable and forced Zhou to recant his views before a large meeting of party delegates. A few years later, when Minister of Defense Peng Dehuai urgently sought to convince Mao to halt the Great Leap Forward, Zhou
did not support Peng’s petition but rather remained cowed and neutral. This was also the case in February 1967 when several military officers challenged Mao’s Cultural Revolution policies. Zhou agreed with the officers’ complaint that the Cultural Revolution should be curtailed and order restored, but again he remained neutral, unwilling to risk detaching himself from Mao. Thus, Zhou failed to defend the public interest when it really counted, that is, when his support for constraining Mao might have decisively blunted Mao’s power.

According to the memoirs of Mao’s personal physician, Zhou behaved surprisingly obsequiously in Mao’s presence, tasting his food to make sure that it was not poisoned and crawling at his feet to show him maps as if Zhou were a eunuch serving the emperor. In private Mao referred to Zhou dismissively as “his housekeeper.” Apparently, the servile way in which Zhou related to Mao was partially a strategy for assuaging Mao’s ego and easing his paranoia and partially a relic of feudal habits and arrangements. An important watershed in cementing Zhou’s partnership with Mao in the early years was Zhou’s convincing apology during the Yan’an Rectification Movement of 1943. Zhou had been singled out for special criticism at Yan’an for his role in pushing Mao out of power at the Ningdu Conference of 1932. Zhou outranked Mao prior to the Long March and had sided with the Soviet-backed majority against Mao’s guerilla warfare strategy.


Over the course of the Long March, Zhou had switched his allegiance to Mao. To persuade Mao that he could be trusted, Zhou put on a consummate performance at Yan’an, chastising himself bitterly for ever having doubts about Mao and declaring his complete loyalty going forward. In subsequent years Zhou would be called upon repeatedly to demean himself like this, most notably near the end of his life when Mao’s wife Jiang Qing and her allies accused the ailing Zhou of being a closet Confucian and arranged for Zhou to endure a “self-rectification” before hundreds of officials within the Great Hall of the People in 1974.

In the aftermath of heir-apparent Lin Biao’s seeming betrayal of Mao in 1971 and his subsequent death in a plane crash, the need to establish a credible successor to Mao loomed heavily in the minds of both Zhou and Mao. By 1972 the Cultural Revolution’s ideological extremism was sputtering, and in this new circumstance the contrasting approaches of Zhou and Mao seemed more contradictory than complementary. By 1972 Zhou had sprung into action, restoring normal governmental functions, rehabilitating party veterans, and putting the economy back on solid footing. Mao and his radical allies, on the other hand, seemed anxious to keep these “rightist” tendencies in check and to salvage some positive legacy for the Cultural Revolution. Because both Zhou and Mao were chronically ill, Zhou with cancer and Mao with Lou Gehrig’s disease, a sense of urgency infused their decision making. The subtle rivalry between Mao and Zhou, long suppressed by the self-effacing Zhou, flared up as they both sought to leave their personal stamp on the future direction of the revolution to which they had dedicated their lives. What was at stake was whether the party machinery would be left in capable hands. Zhou was determined to pass on his position as premier to Deng Xiaoping and to secure Mao’s endorsement for it. Mao respected Deng’s abilities as an administrator, and he gave Zhou the approval he sought to return Deng to power and make him acting premier despite the objections of the radicals. But Mao remained ambivalent about Deng as a successor because he wanted the ultimate decision maker to be someone whose ideology he trusted would remain purely revolutionary, such as Wang Hongwen or Hua Guofeng, his choices for successors. Mao did not want to see ideological objectives diminished or buried. Mao suspected that Deng was ultimately “a capitulationist,” that is, one who would eventually forgo revolutionary aspirations and “go down the capitalist road” were he not properly kept in check by a genuine revolutionary like himself.

By January 1976, when Zhou succumbed to cancer, Mao’s credibility was on the wane because of his lingering support for ideological extremists such as his wife, Jiang Qing. On the other hand, Zhou’s reputation had been enhanced. His conspicuous role in restoring governmental functions and rehabilitating persecuted intellectuals and party veterans since 1971 was widely appreciated. Deng was seen as the one few cadres capable of continuing Zhou’s work in his absence. The intense outpouring of grief accompanying news of Zhou’s death unsettled Mao and his allies and spurred them to make a decisive move to curtail public mourning for Zhou and to remove Deng Xiaoping from power for a second time.

Demonstration Suppressed

On 4 April 1976, coinciding with the Qingming Festival to honor the dead, thousands gathered at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in defiance of strictures, laying wreaths, poems, and flowers in tribute to Zhou at the Monument to the People’s Heroes. The gathering threatened to escalate into a demonstration against Mao himself as some wall posters denounced him as a cruel Qin Shi Huang Di, the despotic first emperor famous in history for “burning the books and burying the scholars.” The CCP sent public security forces during the night of 4–5 April to remove the offerings from the monument and cordoned off the area in an effort to keep the throngs of mourners at bay. The radicals responded by accusing Deng Xiaoping of orchestrating a conspiracy, and troops were sent in to suppress the demonstration on the night of 5 April. After Mao’s died in September and the Gang of Four was arrested, mourning for Zhou was again permitted. Deng Xiaoping was exonerated of conspiracy charges, and the verdict on the so-called Tiananmen Incident of 1976 was reversed after Deng replaced Mao’s appointed successor, Hua Guofeng, as paramount leader in a peaceful transfer of power that began in 1979 and was formally consolidated in 1981.

The dramatic events after Zhou’s death suggest that Zhou ultimately won the footrace with Mao over the succession issue in the manner of the tortoise overtaking the hare. Some might even go so far as to say that Zhou finally stepped out from under the shadow of Mao to contend with him, albeit in his self-effacing way, during the final years of his life. Decades later we see that Zhou’s more moderate, less ideological approach proved pivotal in determining the future of communism in China. Mao’s choice of successor, the ideologue Hua Guofeng, could not compete with Zhou’s candidate, the seasoned pragmatist and team player, Deng Xiaoping.

Zhou’s rigorous work schedule, interrupted by only a few hours of sleep a night, epitomized the self-sacrifice and industriousness implied by Mao’s slogan, “Serve the People,” a motto that Zhou wore pinned to his lapel every day.

Dance and Politics

The political beliefs of Zhou Enlai can be explained by observing his behavior and performance on the dance floor.

Zhou’s handling of his political life can be understood by analogy to his behavior on the dance floor. Both Mao and Zhou enjoyed ballroom dancing. For Mao, dance parties were occasions for reveling in the adulation of a harem of young ladies. Ever anxious not to upstage the chairman, Zhou Enlai always left the dance floor the moment Mao arrived, although dancing, along with table tennis, was one of the few pastimes he permitted himself. But Zhou absented himself from the limelight in deference to Mao because Zhou wished to preserve harmonious relations with Mao. Within that ruler-minister relationship, Zhou had to display his junior status conspicuo
usly. This was the secret of Zhou’s ability to survive so many purges: Mao could rely on him because he trusted that Zhou would never plot against him.

A radical Maoist once quipped that Zhou Enlai always swung his dance partner to the right. Apparently this was true—but not because Zhou consciously swung the ladies in the direction of his politics, as his critic was suggesting, but because an arm injury limited his range of motion. Nevertheless, the joke is in fact suggestive of who Zhou really was and how he was understood during his final years. By the early 1970s, Zhou was clearly a pragmatist, or a moderate, surviving in a sea of radicals. He was their tool, but he was not one of them, and they knew it.

Source: Hawks, S. D.. (2007, January). Zhou Enlai and Mao Zedong. Guanxi: The China letter 1(9), 5–7.

Further Reading

Barnouin, B., & Yu Changgen. (2006). Zhou Enlai: A political life. Hong Kong: Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Chang, David W. (1984). Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping in the Chinese leadership succession crisis. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.

Chen Wu. (2004, February). Review of Gao Wenqian’s Zhou Enlai’s later years. China Analysts Group Monthly Journal, 1, 47.

Collins Associates. (Eds.). (1973). Quotations from premier Chou En-lai. New York: Thomas Y. Crowell.

Gao Wenqian. (2003). Wannian Zhou Enlai [Zhou Enlai in his later years]. New York: Mingjing chubanshe.

Goldstein S. M. (1983, December). Zhou Enlai and China’s revolution: A selective view. The China Quarterly, 96, 720–730.

Hammond, E. (1980). Coming of grace: An illustrated biography of Zhou Enlai. Berkeley, CA: Lancaster-Miller.

Han Suyin. (1994). Eldest son: Zhou Enlai and the making of modern China, 1898-1976. New York: Hill and Wang.

Kampen, T. (2000). Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai and the evolution of the Chinese Communist leadership. Copenhagen, Denmark: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies.

Keith, R. C. (1989). The diplomacy of Zhou Enlai. New York: St. Martin’s Press.

Lee Chae-Jin. (1994). Zhou Enlai: The early years. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Liu Wusheng & Xu Xiaohong. (Eds.). (2006). Ping shuo Wannian Zhou Enlai [Critical response to Zhou Enlai’s late years]. Beijing: Zhonggongdangshi chubanshe.

MacFarquhar, R., & Schoenhals, M. (2006). Mao’s last revolution. Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press of Harvard University.

Short, P. (1999). Mao: A life. New York: Henry Holt.

Wilson, D. (1984). Zhou Enlai: A biography. New York: Viking.

Zhisui Li. (1994). The private life of Chairman Mao (Tai Hung-Chao, Trans.). New York: Random House.

Source: Hawks, Shelley Drake (2009). ZHOU Enlai. In Linsun Cheng, et al. (Eds.), Berkshire Encyclopedia of China, pp. 2641–2645. Great Barrington, MA: Berkshire Publishing.

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