Zhou Enlai: From Voice of Reason to Reform Facilitator?


Here at ChinaFund.com, it’s almost impossible to write a detailed article about China with a meaningful historic dimension without mentioning Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping… or both of them in quite a few cases. The same principle is valid when it comes to pretty much all China-oriented publications, so to say that Mao and Deng tend to always steal everyone else’s thunder would be the understatement of the century (literally).

However, a mistake frequently made when it comes to analysis efforts is that the author doesn’t dig deep enough and this lack of granular research leads to stereotypical conclusions which may sound accurate or logical and even be just that but absent the proper context, let’s just say the entire endeavor is… well, incomplete.

Political figures such as Zhou Enlai are oftentimes the key to filling that gap.

Right from the beginning of his political career as an activist and even downright imprisoned agitator, it became relatively clear what Zhou Enlai’s political path is likely to be, so it should come as no surprise that he has been “around” during the early days of 1921 when it comes to the Communist Party of China. A sometimes bumpy career path followed, from his “complex” and ultimately life-threatening relationship with Kuomintang leader Chiang Kai-shek (for more details about the political dimension of the Republic of China, click HERE) to his literally life-long friendship with Mao Zedong (the same way, click HERE for more details about the political dimension of the People’s Republic of China).

The birth of the People’s Republic of China has Zhou as one of the key figures (as the premier of the republic), with his role being best illustrated by two dimensions:

  1. Zhou was put in charge of China’s let’s call it “challenging” bureaucracy, with his attention to detail being emblematic enough for him to gain Mao’s confidence when it comes to this crucial task
  2. As strange as it may seem, the second dimension is a remarkably different one, international affairs. In light of the fact that China no longer had a foreign minister for political reasons, one might argue that Zhou became China’s #1 diplomat. His balanced personality enabled him to gain the respect of his counterparts, with Zhou negotiating some of China’s most tricky arrangements, including “contradictory” ones such as the 30-year alliance between China and the USSR signed back in 1950 and his key contribution to Richard Nixon’s 1972 Beijing visit

But perhaps the most important contribution of Zhou Enlai was the fact that his balance managed to even convince Mao Zedong and some of China’s most ardent ideologues to tone it down a notch every now and then. For examples, during the ideological fanaticism-driven days of the post-1966 Cultural Revolution, Zhou frequently managed to temper those who wanted to take decisive action against countless “destabilizing elements”… to use a rather diplomatic term.

On the one hand, may praise him for this achievement and, in fact, his death in 1976 generated a huge wave of sympathy toward him and antipathy toward ideologically rigid factions such as the (in)famous Gang of Four. This dual tidal wave reaction was so profound that it even led to the Tiananmen Incident and, again, Zhou played a decisive role in many of China’s key moments. Among other things, he even had a major contribution to the reinstatement of Deng Xiaoping, once the Cultural Revolution dust settled.

On the other hand, others criticize him for tolerating a wide range of inhumane excesses in order to remain close to power. And, indeed, in perhaps the most ideologically turbulent period of China’s history, he managed to stay very close to power until his death. Unfortunately, his resilience came at a significant cost, the fact that compromises needed to be made frequently and it is precisely these compromises which make many challenge his legacy.

Could he have achieved better results by being significantly more firm when trying to temper the excesses of the Cultural Revolution? If it would have worked out on his favor then yes, most definitely.

Could his decreased willingness to compromise have backfired, turning him into a Cultural Revolution victim and leaving Mao and his many ideologically rigid followers without a break pedal and China itself thereby even worse off? Indeed, this is also a possible scenario.

Let’s assume Zhou Enlai never existed. Would someone else have been as capable of tempering Mao? Hard to state. The same way, would Deng Xiaoping have had the support needed for his future political trajectory? Perhaps, but then again, maybe not.

Like with many key figures throughout China’s history or any nation’s history for that matter, it is hard to paint things in black or white. As the person he helped reinstate and who became China’s top reform agent (Deng Xiaoping) stated… at the end of the day, perhaps it doesn’t matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice. And Zhou definitely caught enough mice to make it clear that he was one of the most competent individuals of his time and while there are undoubtedly questionable aspects pertaining to his activity and areas where he could have done more (yes, perhaps much more), this article hopefully makes it clear that including Zhou Enlai in the picture of China that we try to accurately paint is a must.

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