The Mystery of Zhou Enlai

Through the ups and downs of the unpredictable Chinese Revolution, Zhou Enlai’s reputation has seemed to stand untarnished. The reasons for this are in part old-fashioned ones: in a world of violent change, not noted for its finesse, Zhou Enlai stood out as elegant, courteous, even courtly; and with his remarkable good looks and fluent intelligence, he seemed to personify the mannerisms of diplomats from a gentler age. At the same time, Zhou’s reputation benefited from the apparently profound contrasts with Mao Zedong, who loved to thrust himself forward into the limelight, and never shrank from taking credit for China’s perpetual upheavals.

The title of Gao Wenqian’s book, Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, is deliberately sardonic, and is designed to show that far from being perfect, Zhou was in fact fallible, often devious, and capable of great cruelty to his friends and fellow revolutionaries. Zhou had “a deft talent,” Gao writes, “for finding some tiny crack in the wall that would allow him to appear even-keeled in his judgments.” In reality, Zhou was often “trailing like a faithful dog” behind Mao, and prone to use “rhetorical babble” whenever doing so might save his skin. “Zhou survived politically by expressing his eternal deference to Mao,” and, adds Gao, employed “voluminous and disgusting flattery” and apparently acquiesced in being “forced to carry Mao’s execution knife.” In a sharply worded introduction to Gao’s book, the China scholar Andrew Nathan takes the epithets even further: for Nathan, Zhou Enlai was a man “unique…in his capacity to endure abasement”; one who was Mao’s “indispensable yet despised assistant,” Mao’s “enabler” who had a “servant mentality” and possessed “an inability to take existential risks, a psychological need to be another leader’s number two.”

(AFP/Getty Images)
Zhou Enlai, Prime Minister of China from the founding of the People’s Republic in 1949 until his death in 1976, leads a demonstration in support of the regime, likely at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution in 1966.

If that were all there were to the corrective defining of Zhou Enlai’s life, it probably would not be worth reading a whole book about it, but in fact this is an intriguing study written under unusual circumstances, by an author, Gao Wenqian, who apparently has excellent qualifications: before he left China, he had been one of the research scholars working on an official biography of Zhou Enlai, with access to classified archives. Though in the subhead the English version is called “A Biography,” the book originally made no claims to being a biography in the regular sense of the term. The Chinese version, which was published by Gao in Hong Kong in 2003, was titled simply Wannian Zhou Enlai (The Last Years of Zhou Enlai); it contained one opening background chapter covering the period from Zhou’s birth in 1898 until the outbreak of China’s so-called Cultural Revolution in 1966.

That chapter, owing to the necessities of space, was highly selective, but it still managed to deal rapidly with Zhou’s early upbringing and schooling, his role in the formative years of the Chinese Communist Party (which first met in 1921), the war of resistance against Japan, Zhou’s early years as a diplomat and premier of the People’s Republic, and the colossal upheavals in the 1950s of China’s anti-intellectual Hundred Flowers Campaign and the vast collectivization movement of the Great Leap Forward in 1958–1959, followed by catastrophic famine. It is really in the year 1966 that the detailed analysis of Gao’s Chinese text begins, and it ends in early 1976 with Zhou’s death from cancer.

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As the book’s Chinese title suggests, these were indeed “the last years” of Zhou Enlai, an astonishing decade in which China piled misery upon misery, and violence upon violence. It was a decade that saw Mao’s launching of China’s youth—under the emotive label of “Red Guards”—against the bureaucratic powers that he suspected of deflecting the revolution from its stated goals; that saw the threat of economic revolution from underpaid and overworked factory laborers; that pitted armed gangs of youths against one another across the country and led to merciless attacks on formerly powerful intellectuals and politicians. During these years the army took over key functions of government in a desperate attempt to restore “order”; groups of radicalized urban youth were sent down to the countryside to “learn from the peasantry”; Mao Zedong in unbridled pursuit of power gleefully wrecked the lives of scores of his own former “comrades-in-arms”; Mao’s chosen successor, army marshal and Defense Minister Lin Biao, defected and was killed, and against all probable expectations, the President of the United States visited China to discuss long-range, great-power priorities with Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong.

In the English translation of Gao’s book, the original Chinese opening chapter on historical background is somewhat lengthened and subdivided into seven separate chapters—perhaps with the intention of justifying the subtitle of “biography” given to the book as a whole. But there is no easy way to check the two versions against each other since the organization of the Chinese version is not strictly followed in the English translation—indeed the words “paraphrase” or “rewriting” might accurately describe Gao’s book as we now have it.

The problem is compounded by the fact that the Chinese version of 2003 gives copious footnotes to Chinese sources and documents, but no bibliography of any kind, whereas the English version drops all of the footnotes, and has a bibliography in which the titles of all Chinese sources are translated into English, making it virtually impossible to collate one version with the other, or to find out what source the translators are in fact “translating.” As a result of these rather odd publishing decisions, what could have been a fairly straight-forward task of checking Gao’s references becomes instead an exhausting and often fruitless steeplechase.

This is a pity, because Gao Wenqian, we are told, worked for fourteen years in the 1970s and 1980s on the staff of the government research bureau that was charged with the task of compiling the official biography of Zhou Enlai. That massive version appeared in two volumes in Chinese in 1998, totaling 2,160 pages, under the simple title Zhou Enlai Zhuan (Biography of Zhou Enlai). Gao was not present in China to see that earlier venture published, for—as he tells us in an afterword—he had grown disillusioned with the Chinese government after witnessing the agonizing events of 1989 at Tiananmen Square, and after many travails eventually emigrated to the United States in 1993.

It was in the US that Gao found a refuge to write his own analysis of Zhou Enlai’s last years, which he had prepared for by sending out of China the index cards of Zhou material that he had painstakingly preserved during his years of work on the official history. For security reasons, researchers on such delicate historical topics as the politics of the senior revolutionary leaders were not allowed to take full transcripts or photocopies out of the archives. When Gao’s book was published in Chinese in Hong Kong during 2003 it aroused great interest in the Mainland, where it was officially banned.

As Gao wrote in the Hong Kong edition, he dedicated the book to his mother, a Communist Party veteran of the revolution, who had been sentenced to serve seven years in a top security prison because of her criticisms of the Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution. Gao had not been allowed back into China to say farewell to her because of the anger his book had aroused. To underline his own self-image of someone eager to serve his country in its current struggles, Gao also wrote in the same dedication that his mother was a direct descendant of Commissioner Lin Zexu (1785–1850), the man who had bravely and unsuccessfully tried to stop the British export of opium into China during the 1830s.

At the very heart of Gao’s book lies an absorbing question that has occupied numerous Chinese thinkers since the time of Confucius in the fifth century BCE, namely how to understand and deal with the moral ambiguities and practical inhibitions that arise if we choose to serve a tyrant. If we believe we can do good by such service, should we risk the moral opprobrium that might come with it? Should men of integrity impose an absolute ban on such service? Suppose such service might seem the only way to guarantee the survival of our parents or our own children? Or suppose we set ourselves a firm limit—say five or ten years—after which time we undertake to sever our connections?

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Gao confronts these questions with considerable seriousness, and he scans his voluminous sources with care as he tries to arrive at a nuanced judgment: Given a “monstrous ego” such as Mao’s, and Zhou’s own sense of service and/or survival, what tack should Zhou have taken? As Gao summarizes the relationship of Mao and Zhou near the end of World War II, when Mao successfully compelled Zhou to write one of the colossal “self-criticisms” on which Party discipline was believed to stand, “Mao was a man of immense talent, but he could not run the entire show all by himself. He needed Zhou Enlai.” Gao continues:

Throughout the decades to come, Mao was plagued by this paradoxical relationship. He had to keep Zhou at bay to prevent him from ever again gaining the upper hand; at the same time, to stay ahead of the game and keep his eye on the big picture, Mao grew even more dependent on Zhou Enlai. He had to draw Zhou close even as he raised the whip, and sometimes lashed the man he could not live without. This paradox is like a code. To understand the code is to understand the curious relationship between the men who ruled what, on October 1, 1949, became the People’s Republic of China—a relationship that remained locked in place as long as they both lived.

This is cogent, and even convincing, but it remains deeply ambiguous about the relationship between the two men, and how we assess their relative contributions. Gao, perhaps unintentionally, gives two conflicting summations to this conundrum—or “code” as he calls it. One is bleakly on the negative side, and in Gao’s account dates from an angry and confrontational meeting that took place in February 1967 in Beijing between the extreme radical leftists of the Central Cultural Revolution Group on one side, and the senior Communist bureaucrats and army commanders on the other. These professional Party leaders “were furious” with the leftist extremists, writes Gao:

But Mao’s fury was even greater and ultimately it destroyed them all. It annihilated an entire generation of old cadres. Zhou Enlai was the only one who managed to safely and deftly navigate his passage through the ordeal and it took all the political skills he could muster: Taoist-like concealment and endurance were combined with obedience and strategic defense, along with a two-timing personality and the face of Janus revealed to all.

That also sounds convincing, and perhaps conclusive, but it has to be contrasted with Gao’s analysis of Zhou’s actions in 1974, when Mao tried, for the last time in his stormy and petulant rule, to galvanize a fresh Cultural Revolution through the bizarre campaign “To Criticize Lin Biao and Confucius,” which was meant to set the seal on all the previous years of struggle. Here we see a different Zhou at work, and with completely contradictory effects. As Gao writes:

Everyone knew that while Mao wanted to settle ancient grudges with a host of political leaders, Zhou blocked him from taking revenge. China’s longtime premier had spent his entire career carefully skirting direct confrontation with the Chairman, and, because Zhou had survived, and acted as a protector, an entire coterie of political leaders had weathered Mao’s primordial wrath…. Zhou’s political influence also checked Mao’s desire to sweep clean the political slate.

So which Zhou is the real Zhou? Surely the answer has to be “both.” Zhou was a man of cunning, of tenacity, and of charm. He was also capable of astonishing ruthlessness at times when he considered it necessary for survival: for instance, in recent years scholars have identified Zhou Enlai as the leader of death squads in the early 1930s that executed (and even buried alive) Communist turncoats who were believed to have given away secret Party information to Nationalist Party interrogators.

Zhou was surely often overawed by Mao, but not fatally so. He had to give in, against his judgment, on numerous occasions—perhaps most tragically during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when he allowed China’s longtime revolutionary leader Liu Shaoqi to be destroyed. Gao gives some shattering examples of Zhou Enlai’s sycophantic language as he hammered the last nails into Liu’s coffin; at the same time Gao acknowledges that standing up for Liu against Mao in the circumstances would have been essentially suicidal, no matter who had tried it. But it is chilling indeed to read Zhou Enlai’s final denunciation of Liu Shaoqi, written in the fall of 1968, in which he borrowed almost every denunciatory phrase directly from the rantings of Mao’s wife Jiang Qing. As Zhou declared:

I too am filled with great hatred as I read and considered the materials and checked off the various examples contained in the three volumes that document how the traitor Liu betrayed our Party and sacrificed our comrades.

The criminal Liu is a big traitor, big scab, big spy, big foreign agent, and collaborator who sold out the country. He is full of the five poisons and a counterrevolutionary guilty on more than ten accounts!

We must fervently support the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution launched and led by our great leader Chairman Mao. Without such a great revolution, how could these criminal materials on the traitor Liu and his people who committed treason against the Party and the country and killed our comrades get dug out so deeply and thoroughly?

Of course, we must continue this probing without the slightest delay, and without losing sight of our goals. If the task cannot be finished in our lifetime, then it should be passed onto our descendants!

Gao, surely accurately, calls these words “disgusting flattery of Mao” and one can only guess at Zhou Enlai’s inner emotions as he wrote them, and whether he felt they echoed his own phrases when he had written some of his own abject recantations in obedience to Mao’s personal instructions.

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With Gao’s book, I feel we are edging toward a clearer understanding of Mao and the Chinese Revolution. It is a mixture of extremes and paradoxes—even of “codes,” as Gao put it. To understand that revolution, we have to increase vastly our understanding of the powerful actors, of the Chinese they tried to govern, of those who perished, those who tortured and were tortured, those who fled into silence. Despite its comparative brevity, Gao’s book can be of real service to us as we inch forward into understanding not just the rhetoric and actions of Mao and Zhou Enlai, but of the chances and coincidences that lay at the heart of the tumult through which they were living.

Just one example: it was on August 29, 1966, we learn, that Red Guards smashed their way into the home of an eighty-five-year-old man called Zhang Shizhao. Zhang was only suffering the same fate as many other elderly figures from the early stages of China’s revolutionary struggle, who had served the revolution with discipline and devotion, but at the same time had kept true to their own beliefs concerning the best ways to bring China into the modern world. But one key difference was that Zhang happened to be from Mao’s hometown in Hunan province, and the two knew each other well. That same day, Zhang wrote a personal letter to Mao, telling him what had happened, and asking Mao to “mediate, to the extent possible, and end the trouble.”

The letter was delivered to Mao that same evening. Furthermore, Mao apparently read the letter at once and wrote across the notepaper, “Forward to the premier to handle as he sees fit. Should provide protection.” “The premier” was Zhou Enlai, and on receipt of the letter on the 30th, Zhou both wrote back to Zhang and started to implement immediate measures to protect Zhang and other prominent figures who were being victimized by the Red Guards. In his instructions, Zhou ordered that a number of these highly placed officials should be allowed to enter the local people’s army hospital #301 near the Communist residence compound, while others were sent to safer locations, or given their own guards to prevent forcible Red Guard entry into their homes.

Overlapping with these security actions, Zhou ordered that Song Qingling, the seventy-two-year-old widow of China’s first president, Sun Yat-sen, be brought to Beijing and put under Zhou’s protection. Mme Song had been living in Shanghai, where she had personally criticized Mao’s wife Jiang Qing for letting the Red Guards abuse their power and authority. The angry Jiang Qing had abetted the trashing of the Song family graves, and had approved the cropping of Mme Song’s hair as a punishment for her intransigence. In a lengthy missive to the Shanghai Red Guards, Zhou pointed out that there was no reason to persecute Mme Song just because her sister had happened to marry China’s former Nationalist leader and Sun’s putative successor, Chiang Kai-shek. In later months, according to Gao, Zhou at times gave help to major Party members as well: among them the Beijing Party boss Peng Zhen, Liu Shaoqi’s wife Wang Guangmei, and the once celebrated revolutionary general He Long.

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Clearly, accounts of this kind demand careful attention if they are to be verified—at one level they involve some of the most powerful people in the country, but at the other end of the spectrum they involve nurses and bodyguards and students and mail deliverers—a whole panorama of China in motion. Tracking the truth and the motivations of these actors remains elusive. Chinese historiography is replete with tall tales masquerading as fact, or being adduced as substitutes for facts that may never be ascertainable.

When I first read Gao Wenqian’s story of the piles of index cards, deftly smuggled out of the country by loyal friends or associates, it seemed the kind of tallish tale that has aroused our suspicions in the past: it seemed a little pat, a little too much driven by our modern passion for clandestine access. But unlike some other recent accounts, where we really have to take the stories from China on faith, along with their sometimes wild exaggerations and unlikely coincidences, Gao’s book on Zhou Enlai gains in plausibility from offering us what at times seems to be a direct route into the archives, or at least into collections of material that offer verifiable clues as to their provenance and their authenticity.

Gao Wenqian does not push himself forward in the story he is telling, but occasionally he reminds us that he himself was involved with the research in a hands-on fashion. Thus he notes at some points that Zhou Enlai chose to alter the minutes of certain key Party meetings, in order to save himself from later recriminations—which could have led to punishment or even death. Sometimes Zhou annotated a general discussion that contained criticism of Mao, pointing out, for example, that “the discussion had veered from the intended agenda.” Carefully tracking certain heated debates, Zhou “made sure that he wasn’t implicated or tied to many of the extreme remarks that had been uttered.”

One particularly voluble and angry vice-premier named Tan Zhenlin exploded against the extreme leftists of the Cultural Revolution leadership group at a meeting in February 1967 and stormed out. Gao observes:

Zhou immediately, and uncharacteristically, pounded on the table and demanded Tan’s return. For Zhou, this detail was absolutely crucial, and when he reviewed the documentary record of this meeting, Zhou personally altered the record to make sure his efforts to rein in Tan Zhenlin were duly noted.

Similarly, describing a top-level meeting convened by a furious Mao at midnight in his Zhongnanhai residence, Gao points out that “Zhou’s revision of this tirade as the official note-taker toned it down somewhat”—lest someone at a future time attempt to use the tirade to impugn Zhou’s loyalty. These sound to me like the kind of details that can be only observed by someone who has worked personally in the archives, or at least has had access to marginal notations or contested interpolations.

Similarly detailed is Gao’s observation that at the time of President Nixon’s 1972 visit to Beijing, Mao gave orders that his favorite interpreter Nancy Tang and his trusted grand-niece Wang Hairong should carefully monitor foreign press reports on the Nixon visit, and inform Mao if they seemed to tilt too favorably toward Zhou Enlai. At other times, Gao tells us that he heard certain pieces of highly confidential information through interviews or conversations with important witnesses who had been present at the events they described.

Given the historiographical complexities of trying to work out what really happened in the Chinese Communist corridors of power, it is not just pedantic to express some exasperation with the absence of footnotes in Gao’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, but at least the editors have placed a detailed list of sources at the close of his volume. Even if those piles of index cards cannot be checked, or some of the transcripts have gone astray, we can cross-check many of Gao’s references, and that is a great help. In the case of the example presented above, the stories of Zhang and Song, of the rampaging Red Guards, of Mao’s swift response and Zhou Enlai’s practical security measures, which appear in both the 2003 Chinese edition and the 2007 English version, are also discussed at length and elaborated on in the official Chinese biography of 1998, with full indications of the sources. There are still immense gaps, of course, and doubtless always will be. But bit by bit a more believable Zhou Enlai is emerging, one who is all the more interesting for being less than perfect.