Born March 5, 1898
Huaian, Kiangsu province, China
Died January 8, 1976
Peking, People's Republic of China
Premier and foreign minister of
People's Republic of China
Z hou Enlai was a leading figure of the People's Republic of China (PRC) from its founding in 1949 to 1976. He served as premier (head of state) throughout this lengthy time period and was also the PRC's foreign minister from 1949 to 1958, but remained the country's leading foreign affairs expert for decades. As a result, Zhou was the most visible PRC official and gained great respect from other world leaders for his superb negotiating skills.
Zhou was responsible for all of communist China's foreign policy through most of the Cold War and much of the PRC's domestic policy as well. The Cold War was an intense political and economic rivalry from 1945 to 1991 between the United States and the Soviet Union, falling just short of military conflict.
Zhou Enlai was born in March 1898 into what had been a prosperous middle-class family in Huaian, within the Kiangsu (later known as Jiangsu) province of eastern China. His father was Zhou Yinen and his mother Wan Dongei. By the time of Zhou's birth, the family was struggling financially. An aunt raised young Zhou his first ten years and then two uncles took over through his teen years. Valuing education, Zhou's relatives supported his attendance at various missionary schools around China. At Nankai Normal School, he was already showing the skills of a master negotiator by leading the school's debate team.
After completing his secondary education, Zhou traveled to Japan in 1917 to further his studies, as many Chinese youths did at the time. He also became very excited about the communist revolution in Russia that same year and eagerly explored Marxist theory. Marxist theory refers to the economic and political interpretations of German philosopher Karl Marx (1818–1883), which formed the basis of communism. Communism is a system of government in which a nation's leaders are selected by a single political party that controls all aspects of society. Under communism, private ownership of property is eliminated and the government directs all economic production; all goods produced and accumulated wealth are, in theory, supposed to be shared equally by all.
Pursuing his growing interest in political activism, Zhou joined an activist Chinese study organization in Japan. Zhou returned to China to the city of Tientsin in 1919, the third-largest city and the largest port in Northern China, to take part in student demonstrations as part of the May Fourth Movement. The movement was protesting the Treaty of Versailles, the peace treaty ending World War I (1914–18), because the treaty gave Japan certain rights to the Chinese province of Manchuria. It was the beginning of a revolution in China that would build through the years with Zhou as a central figure. He was arrested for his activism in 1920 and released that fall after being in prison for four months.
Zhou soon played an instrumental role in the beginning of the Chinese communist revolution. Zhou had great sympathy for the working class, especially Chinese peasants. Freed from prison, Zhou journeyed to Paris, France, on a work-study program. There, he joined the Chinese Socialist Youth Corps, a new communist organization, and then became an organizer of a Berlin branch in Germany. While in Europe, he associated with other future communist revolutionaries such as Ho Chi Minh (1890–1969; see entry), who would later lead North Vietnam. Zhou joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at this time and formed the CCP European branch. He served as an officer of the European branch and also gained a broad knowledge of various cultures and political ideas from various parts of the world. This formed a foundation for his later role as a leading foreign diplomat of the CCP.
Return to China
In 1924, Zhou returned to China, to Canton in the Guangdong province. There, he became active in a new alliance between the CCP and the Nationalist Party (Kuomintang) led by Chiang Kai-shek (1887–1975; see entry). They were joining forces in a national revolution against China's ruling warlords, or local military leaders. Zhou assumed leadership of the Canton Communist Party and became deputy head of the Whampoa Military Academy near Canton. Chiang was head of the academy, which taught many future military leaders of China.
While in Canton, Zhou married fellow revolutionary Deng Yingchao in 1925, whom he had met during the 1919 Tientsin demonstrations. They would have no children of their own but adopted many. Among them was Li Peng (1928–), who became prime minister of communist China in 1987. Like Zhou, Deng would become a prominent CCP member and deputy chairman of the All-China Federation of Women, a key women's organization in the CCP.
The alliance army began a military expedition in 1926. By March 27, 1927, its troops were closing in on the major city of Shanghai. To help seize the city, Zhou traveled in advance to organize the city's workers to go on strike. After successfully entering the city, however, Chiang turned his Nationalist forces on CCP members, killing five thousand of them. Barely escaping, the surprised and angered Zhou traveled to Nankow, which became the new center for the CCP. In the next two months, Zhou was elected to the CCP Central Committee, the Communist Party's main administrative body; and its Politburo, the executive body of the Central Committee, responsible for making policy decisions. Zhou was also made director of the military department of the CCP Central Committee.
In August 1927, Zhou led a communist force of thirty thousand troops to gain control of the town of Nanchang in retaliation for the Shanghai massacre. The military operation was known as the Nanchang Uprising. At first, the CCP took the city, but the Nationalists quickly retook it. Zhou retreated to Hong Kong, then to Shanghai, where the CCP began operating underground. Despite the Nanchang defeat, this event would long be celebrated as the beginning of the Chinese Red Army. By 1928, Chiang's Nationalists had united China under one government.
The Long March
Because Moscow during these early years guided CCP activities, Zhou traveled to Moscow in 1928 to be reaffirmed once again as the CCP military leader. Maintaining his leadership role, he returned to China to rebuild the organization. The CCP switched its focus from failed city uprisings with large losses to organizing rural peasants and farmers. In 1931, Zhou left Shanghai for the Kiangsi province in southwest China where Mao Zedong (1893–1976; see entry) and others were building the rural-based communist rebellion. In Kiangsi, they established the Chinese Soviet Republic, with Zhou serving on its Central Executive Committee and as leader of its army. They then worked to expand the communist base over the next several years.
In October 1934, Chiang launched an attack to destroy the growing communist stronghold. Chiang's army won a series of military victories over the CCP, driving the Red Army from Kiangsi and south-central China. After suffering 60,000 casualties, Zhou and Mao decided to embark on a major retreat that became known as the Long March. The Long March was an epic journey to a new base in northwestern China. They trudged some 6,000 miles (9,650 kilometers) over one year's time. Of the 90,000 or so who started the journey, only about 8,000 survived. Zhou's wife, Deng, was one of the few women to make the journey. During the Long March, in January 1935, leadership of the party and Central Committee's military department switched from Zhou to Mao and remained this way for the rest of their lives. The march arrived at Yen-an in the northern Shensi province in October 1935.
Zhou the diplomat
From the new base in Yen-an, Zhou readily tackled his new role as chief negotiator for the CCP. A priority of Zhou's was to rebuild an alliance with the Nationalists against the growing Japanese aggression. Japan had invaded Manchuria in 1931 and was expanding its control from there. In December 1936, Chiang was arrested by one of his generals, who sought to end the civil war with the CCP and instead focus all Chinese on Japanese aggression. Seizing the opportunity, Zhou immediately traveled to argue for saving Chiang's life. After days of negotiation, he was successful and obtained agreements from Chiang to end the civil war and join forces against Japan. The communists gained much greater respect from the Chinese general public due to Zhou's diplomacy.
War broke out with Japan in July 1937. Zhou served as the CCP representative within the government for the next several years. Following Japan's surrender to the United States and allied forces in August 1945, ending World War II (1939–45), Mao and Zhou traveled to Chungking to reach a peace agreement with Chiang. They proposed a coalition government of Chinese communists and Chiang's Nationalists, yet the lack of success in negotiations led to the involvement of the United States to help reach a settlement. U.S. president Harry S. Truman (1884–1972; served 1945–53; see entry) sent General George C. Marshall (1880–1959; see entry) but still no resolution was reached. Zhou returned to Yen-an and civil war resumed in 1947 after an eleven-year pause.
Only two years later, the communists gained control of the Chinese government. They formed the People's Republic of China (PRC) on October 1, 1949. Chiang's nationalist government fled to the island of Taiwan off the south coast of Mainland China. There, Chiang established the Republic of China (ROC), with hopes of eventually retaking the mainland. Mao became chairman of the PRC's Communist Party, serving as the country's spiritual and philosophical leader. Zhou was the PRC's premier and foreign minister. As premier,
Zhou was chief administrator of the vast bureaucracy he created for the nation of one billion people. Zhou was also vice chairman of the committee drafting a constitution for the new country. As foreign minister, Zhou was in charge of establishing all foreign relations. Since Zhou already had a strong background in international issues and had many foreign contacts, he became the long-term voice of the PRC and traveled extensively. Perhaps his greatest contribution, through his many years of service, was the professionalism he brought to the new government and the respect he quickly gained for it.
The United States versus communist China
Zhou's interactions with the United States during the Cold War were numerous and varied. They involved the PRC's role in the United Nations (UN), armed conflict in Korea, confrontation over the existence of the ROC, and finally, the building of an improved relationship. In 1949, Zhou considered the United States to be the primary obstacle to world acceptance of the PRC. The China Lobby, a group of influential nationalist supporters in the United States, put substantial pressure on the U.S. government to withhold recognition of the PRC and block the PRC's inclusion in the UN. Opposed to all communist governments, the United States blocked UN acceptance of the PRC for years and for three decades recognized the ROC on Taiwan as the only legitimate Chinese government. In addition, the United States placed a trade embargo, which prohibited commerce such as ships in and out of ports, on the PRC from 1950 until 1971 and kept a sizable military force in South Korea and Japan.
In June 1950, communist North Korea invaded U.S.supported South Korea. A UN coalition led predominantly by U.S. forces quickly responded. Zhou kept the PRC out of the conflict at first; however, he warned the United States that the PRC would become involved if U.S. forces penetrated into North Korea. Not only did U.S. forces cross the boundary between North and South Korea by the fall of 1950, but they actually pushed all the way to the Chinese border with North Korea. Feeling threatened by the U.S. aggressiveness, Zhou unleashed three hundred thousand PRC troops in November 1950 to fight directly against U.S. forces. The PRC army successfully pushed U.S. forces back across North Korea and into South Korea before reaching a stalemate at the original boundary by the spring of 1951. Peace would not come until 1953.
Zhou also felt threatened by the U.S.-backed ROC off the south coast. Twice during the 1950s, the PRC bombarded ROC-held islands off the mainland coast. These islands were heavily fortified by ROC forces, and both times the United States intervened by gaining guarantees from the ROC to not attack the PRC.
A peak in Zhou's influence came at the 1954 Geneva conference following a key communist military defeat of French forces in Vietnam at Dien Bien Phu. Zhou was able to negotiate a peace settlement including a cease-fire from the communist Vietminh forces and a partitioning of the country with the communists in control of the North. Zhou won praise for his skill even though U.S. secretary of state John Foster Dulles (1888–1959; see entry) refused to shake hands with Zhou and the United States refused to sign the agreement.
In 1969, Richard M. Nixon (1913–1994; served 1969–74; see entry) became U.S. president. Before long, he sent indications to Zhou that he was interested in improving relations between the two nations. Zhou readily seized the opportunity and Nixon dropped the trade embargo. In July and October 1971, U.S. national security advisor Henry Kissinger (1923–; see entry) made two secret trips to China to begin discussions with Zhou. These meetings set the stage for Nixon's historic visit to Peking in February 1972 to meet Mao. It was the first visit by a U.S. president to the PRC. Owing to Zhou's superb negotiating skills, Nixon recognized the Chinese on Taiwan as part of the PRC, rather than the ROC being China's main government or even a separate government of its own.
Expanding foreign relations and surviving domestic upheavals
Aside from dealing with conflicts involving the United States, Zhou explored possible expansion of PRC influence in other parts of the world. He toured Eastern Europe in 1957 seeking more direct relations outside Soviet influence. Zhou was also interested in nationalist movements (those seeking independence) and forming new ties with underdeveloped countries. From 1956 to 1964, Zhou traveled widely throughout Africa and Asia. Though he formally gave up his position as foreign minister in 1958, Zhou still kept most of the duties and responsibilities of the post. One of his more bitter relationships was with India's leader Jawaharlal Nehru (1889–1964) over a border dispute. The dispute turned into armed conflict in 1962 and was a rousing PRC victory.
Zhou also had to negotiate through internal upheavals orchestrated by Mao. The Great Leap Forward in 1955 and 1956 was an effort to transfer control of agriculture and industry to local communes. It led to disastrous results, including famine. Zhou next survived the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. During the Cultural Revolution, Mao sought to rejuvenate the revolutionary spirit of the CCP by purging bureaucrats, intellectuals, and others. Zhou provided a moderating influence on these events by discreetly protecting some key moderate leaders. Yet Zhou suffered a heart attack in 1967 after being harassed by the Red Guard, a special force created by Mao to carry out the Cultural Revolution. The following year, in October 1968, the Red Guard tortured to death one of Zhou's adopted daughters.
The Zhou legacy
Highly intelligent and amazingly good with details, Zhou was one of the most widely respected diplomats in the world and the most liked Chinese leader. Zhou loved to dance and watch movies and exuded personal charm. Courteous and thoughtful, he showed much tact. Despite his long dedication to the CCP since its founding, he was not known as an ideologue, or one driven by his political beliefs, but a master of practical diplomacy. Communist Party leader Mao Zedong had zeal, while Zhou was moderate. Zhou restrained extremists within the CCP and kept diplomatic doors open to foreign nations.
Zhou died of bladder cancer in January 1976 after three years of serious illness. Mao died in September. After Zhou's death, a brief power struggle followed, with Zhou supporter Deng Xiaoping (1904–1997) finally claiming leadership, which lasted until his own death in 1997. Three years after Deng's death, the United States and the PRC established direct formal relations. In keeping with his very modest lifestyle, Zhou had his ashes scattered over China with no specific monument erected. He also wrote no memoirs or autobiography.
For More Information
Kai-yu, Hsu. Chou En-Lai: China's Gray Eminence. New York: Doubleday, 1968.
Keith, Ronald C. The Diplomacy of Zhou Enlai. New York: Macmillan, 1989.
Kissinger, Henry. The White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979.
Roots, John McCook. Chou: An Informal Biography of China's Legendary Chou En-lai. New York: Doubleday, 1978.
Shao, Kuo-kang. Zhou Enlai and the Foundations of Chinese Foreign Policy. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1996.
Suyin, Han. Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898–1976. New York: Hill and Wang, 1994.
Wilson, Dick. Zhou Enlai: A Biography. New York: Viking Press, 1984.
A longstanding challenge in Zhou Enlai's foreign policy was relations with the Soviet Union, known as Sino-Soviet relations (Sino means "Chinese"). Initially, the Soviets provided guidance to the young CCP through the 1920s and 1930s. Soon after the communist Red Army defeated the Nationalist Chinese government in 1949, Zhou established a defense alliance with the Soviets. Serving both as premier and foreign minister of the PRC, Zhou was the key PRC contact with the Soviets.
Examples of his contact included Zhou acting as the CCP representative at the funeral of Joseph Stalin (1879–1953; see entry) in March 1953. Significant differences grew between the CCP and the Soviet Communist Party, however, by the mid-1950s as Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971; see entry) introduced reforms with which Zhou and the Chinese did not agree. In a historic February 1956 speech, Khrushchev severely criticized Stalin's past policies. Zhou disagreed with the speech, believing it would weaken Soviet communist rule. Proving him right, Eastern European countries immediately tried to break from Soviet control and Khrushchev responded with deadly military force.
In 1957, Zhou traveled to Moscow to protest the Soviet Union's aggressive actions in Eastern Europe. By 1959, relations began to improve, and Zhou returned to Moscow to obtain much-needed Soviet assistance in the construction of numerous industrial and power plants. This assistance lasted only until July 1960, when the Soviets pulled out due to growing differences. The countries formally split in 1961 when Zhou walked out of a Moscow Communist Party meeting. He laid a wreath at Stalin's tomb in defiance of Khrushchev's policies. This proved to U.S. officials that not all communists were the same, nor did they represent a monolithic (standing as one) communist threat to take over the world.
In 1964, Zhou visited Moscow to resolve differences once again; progress was slow, though, and border clashes between the two communist governments grew in frequency. Finally, in 1969, a resolution was negotiated, ending the border clashes between the two communist powers. An uneasy peace was established for the last several years of Zhou's leadership.