Posted by: williamjsykes | May 19, 2009

Zhou Enlai as Premier of the People’s Republic of China and Transformation of Western Perception of Mainland China, 1949-1972. Part I

This is a dissertation thesis I wrote in a university here in the United States and is a rather lengthy essay about Zhou Enlai, who was the first premier of Chinese People’s Republic and perhaps one of the most compelling figures of the 20th Century. Reading this essay may require a considerable amount of time investment and knowledge in related field. Enjoy.



Zhou Enlai as Premier of the People’s Republic of China and

Transformation of Western Perception of Mainland China, 1949-1972.


Part I: The Formative Years


Throughout the modern era, the Western perception of China has been greatly transformed by a series of events that inflicted a colossal degree of upheavals in Chinese history. Prior to the Communist Revolution of 1949, the Western –especially American– view of China was heavily influenced by China’s status as an ally in World War II, with the corrupt and incompetent Chiang Kai-Shek being cast as the faltering nation’s heroic leader against the grim streak of Japanese imperialism. Nonetheless, after the demonstration of an utter inability by Nationalist government against its Communist counterpart following the end of World War II, the image of Chiang and his Nationalist regime became rapidly tarnished. The victory of the Chinese Communist Party in its struggle against Chiang’s regime marked the beginning of an era where western portrayal of mainland China was characterized by a transformation from a normal, friendly nation to a horrifying if mysterious enemy, as seen in the pejorative term of “Red China” suggests.

As the Premier of the People’s Republic of China from its consolidation of power in 1949 to his death in 1976, Zhou Enlai was one of prominent actors in a series of historic events that metamorphosed the West’s perception of the new China from “Red China” to a legitimate power of the Chinese subcontinent. In early stage of the People’s Republic, it was Zhou who quickly garnered recognition from a considerable number of states to keep Taiwan’s remaining diplomatic arsenal in check. When the dire straits of decolonization was in its pinnacle, Zhou skillfully placed his country as a leader of the “third world” struggle, which became a useful bargaining tool for Beijing not only against Washington but also towards Kremlin, whose relationship with China became strained following beginning of the Sino-Soviet Split in 1959. At the time when John Foster Dulles, Secretary of State under the Eisenhower Administration, warned his colleagues against the danger of what he described as “the creed of international Communism,” Zhou actively sought collaboration with non-Communist states –many of them hostile to Soviet interests– to promote Chinese interest even at the expense of Kremlin’s.

The capstone of –albeit perhaps the most important part of– Zhou’s career was a thaw in Sino-American relations represented by Richard Nixon’s historic visit to mainland China for the first time following the Communist Revolution. Skillfully crafted by Zhou and his Washington counterpart Henry Kissinger, the Sino-American rapprochement marked the end of the Cold War order as it was known till that moment to usher the world into a new world order that was characterized by multi-polar power orientation. Before and during this remarkable historic event, Zhou paved the road for collaboration with Western states through showing a conciliatory gesture to the supposed enemies that were wary of a relative decrease in American –thus Western– stature across the globe following the failure of Vietnam War. With these events in mind, I in this paper would like to investigate the role of Zhou Enlai and his relations with diplomats from various parts of the globe that helped shaping China’s stature and its perception from the West in a positive fashion from timescale of 1949 (Chinese Revolution) to 1972 when Sino-American rapprochement that pioneered the present relationship between two great powers of the modern world .

Zhou Enlai was born in March 5, 1898 in a family that was known for its rich aristocratic tradition. According to Chae-Jin Lee’s Zhou Enlai: the early years,[1] Zhou’s family claimed ancestry from the ruling clan of Song Dynasty that ruled China from tenth to fourteenth century. As a child, Zhou was raised largely under the hands of Zhou Tiaochi, his second uncle or distant relative,[2] as Zhou’s natural father was unemployed at the time.[3] It is said that Zhou’s foster mother “Madame Chen” had a profound influence on the Chinese Premier’s formative years with her rigid yet caring parenthood.[4] Indeed, it was under this guidance where Zhou started forming his first -and perhaps best known- pillar of his intellectual substance, a blend of classical Confucian education and the emerging “new” studies from Japan and the West. Although originally hailing from southern part of China, Zhou’s foster family moved to Manchuria due to increasingly difficult condition in its homeland. In Manchuria, Zhou was able to study “new” education in local schools and Chinese classics under his household. The experiences Zhou garnered from these years became one his tremendous assets in a distinguished career, as it established a solid basis for Zhou to master the art of old-fashioned negotiation while possessing a solid degree of Communist credentials, with his Washington counterpart Richard Nixon representing similar if not same traits in his colorful political journey.[5]

Another very important breakthrough in Zhou’s early intellectual development was at Nankai Middle School in Tientsin, where the young Enlai started calling for a unified, industrialized China, a principle that Zhou -despite an innumerable amount of compromises he made in his political career- preserved throughout his years.[6] While virtually all students of Nankai Middle School had a consensus on a necessity for creation of a new China, a question of how this will be carried out was left virtually unanswered. Indeed, there was a profound ideological difference amongst various students and faculty of the school, with Chang Po-Ling, the principal of Zhou’s alma mater, later moving on to become one of Chiang Kai-Shek’s leading aides.[7] Nevertheless, Zhou’s intellectual and emotional ties with his alma mater and its Principal was strong enough up to a degree where he stayed in touch with Chang even during the second Chinese Civil War following World War II.[8]

Zhou’s image as merely an old-fashioned practitioner of Confucian values and an expert of silky compromise is put into jeopardy when one observes the events of the prolific statesman’s formulating years spent in Japan. At the time of Zhou’s departure to Japan in 1917, majority of Chinese students venturing abroad were destined to the emerging Asian power, a pattern that perhaps could be explained as a Chinese endeavor to benchmark Japan as an example of successful modernization.[9] Nonetheless, not many Chinese students who studied in Japan in the era chose to embraced the Japanese model of industrialization that was led by a handful of former feudal barons who appointed themselves as vanguards of a revolution from upward. Meanwhile, one of scholars at the time who influenced Zhou’s political vision was Hajime Kawakami,[10] a Japanese Marxist who was also the first serious scholar of Marxism in the Far East, an affiliation that alienated him from Japanese establishment at the time. It was his days in Japan when Zhou started calling for an ideological upheaval amongst the mass, not a revolution from upward led by a Bismarck-esque strongman.[11] Indeed, it seems apparent that unlike Deng Xiaoping, the architect of China as an industrial powerhouse, who carried out his policies without much regard to ideological pedigree, Zhou took his Marxist ideals very seriously. This, I observe, perhaps explains Zhou’s rather ambivalent attitude between pragmatism and ideological purity in many instances, as clearly shown when the Premier, while pursuing a hardly ideological course in international diplomacy,[12] was also one of the staunchest supporters of Cultural Revolution, perhaps one of the most vivid instance of an ideologically-driven blunder in the 20th Century. Even during a series of negotiations with the United States in the wake of Nixon-Mao summit in 1971, Zhou repeatedly asserted Taiwan as a part of China,[13] a position that could have derailed the entire rapprochement scheme that Beijing needed and painstakingly prepared for.

Like many of his generation who later took the helm as leaders of a new China[14], Zhou actively participated in protests of May Fourth Movement, for which he was jailed for a short period of time. One could infer that Zhou played a considerable role in organizing student activism at the time, as upon his release he was offered both marriage to a daughter of one of Nankai Middle School’s leading sponsors and an -at the time- unparalleled opportunity to study abroad in France. Zhou turned down the former yet was guaranteed the latter.[15] In 1920 Paris, there was a large number of Chinese students who usually financed their education through working in blue-collar factories. Communist-inspired[16] student activism flourished, with many of its participants later moving on to found Chinese Communist Party in 1921.[17] It was under this tutelage where Zhou started building his reputation as a skilled demonstration organizer for the yet infantile Chinese Communist cause, a credential that would serve him well for decades to come when the Premier‘s silky ways did not go hand-to-hand with Communist hotheads in Beijing.

It is worth noting that in his early years, Zhou believed that creation of an independent modern China didn’t necessarily require a violent uprising as seen in Russian Revolution of 1917.[18] Indeed, a split within those who attempt to construct a new, modern China was yet to emerge at this point, with the openly Communist Zhou Enlai joining CCP’s future nemesis Kuomintang without much opposition.[19] Chinese political landscape at the time was characterized as a struggle between a broad omnibus of warlord-led factions whose self-serving nature often made them collaborators to foreign -especially Western- interest against a coalition of republicans who vowed to create a new China free of Western or Japanese colonialism. Further, the Soviet Union, the only Marxist state in the world at the time, heavily cooperated with the republican coalition led by Sun Yat-Sen, whose brand of republicanism was hardly consistent with how an orthodox Marxist-Leninist would describe the term.[20] Kremlin’s willingness to collaborate with the noncommunist revolutionaries could be viewed as Realpolitik on Moscow’s part, as any opposition towards pro-Western warlordism meant an ideal counterbalance against Western influence in China. Upon his return from France in 1924 as an accomplished leader for a revolutionary cause, Zhou was thus rewarded with a seat as a political Commissar for the newly-founded Whampoa Military School, a position where he was first acquainted with Chiang Kai-Shek and other Nationalist leaders,[21] perhaps unaware of latter events that saw two of the most influential factions that attempted to create a new China quarreling against one another.

The revolutionary coalition’s so-called “Northern Expedition” was a stinging success, with the largely disorganized armies of conservative warlords being unable to answer a series of offensives from determined, well-disciplined republican forces. Yet 1927, the year when Northern Expedition started gaining a compelling momentum, proved to be a year of tremendous setback for Chinese Communist Party, as Chiang, in heart an anti-Communist, ordered a massive arrest and purge of Communist-related officials that eventually became a precursor[22] to a lengthy retreat generally known as the Long March. A senior Communist official by this point, Zhou was briefly arrested during the quagmire, having attempted to reduce the level of violence across the city. It was only an internal disorder within Kuomintang that saved Zhou’s life,[23] as while purge of Communists was taking place en masse at the time, CCP was still nominally an ally of Kuomintang and a hasty declaration of a split within the republican coalition could have undermined the cause altogether. The Soviets’ unwillingness to help Chinese communist movement during and after -as seen in Nanchang uprising later that year- the debacle arguably became a beginning point of mutual distrust between Kremlin and Chinese Communist Party, a pattern that will be bolstered by latter events.[24] The looming split between Moscow and (more than a decade later) Beijing ironically proved to be the direct cause of breakthrough for a thaw in Sino-American relationship.

Zhou’s conduct from the Communists’ rout from Shanghai to the end of World War II could be characterized as a period that consolidated his credentials as both a devoted Communist and a skilled diplomat. Amid what one could indeed describe as a turbulent era in the history of Chinese Communist cause, Zhou cemented his stature within the party by a method that is hardly in accordance with his silky public image: through confrontational rhetoric and sometimes sheer force, with the enforcer of such strand being Mao Zedong, who took advantage of post-Shanghai context to propagate his vision of peasant-based Communist revolution.[25]

Mao’s rise within the ranks of Chinese Communist Party was in part helped by miserable failures of Soviet-modeled revolution attempts, the endeavor that party establishment at the time embraced and Mao (and Zhou) objected. At the time of Shanghai Massacre, pro-Soviet members were still dominant over the structure of Chinese Communist Party up to a degree where Chen Duxiu, the founder of China’s communist movement, was expelled from the party after voicing his objection over some of the party’s Soviet-inspired policies. Despite a considerable difference in societal structure between China and its western counterparts, the Soviet Union encouraged CCP to focus on urban uprising of laborers. Mao, Zhou and a number of dissident party members had problems with what they viewed as an utter neglect of reality, suggesting that in China, where vast majority of population are peasants residing in rural areas, it naturally follows that mobilization of such rural mass to strangle the counterrevolutionaries’ urban bases is the most effective method for a communist revolution. Henceforth, it was only after the fall of Jiangxi Soviet Republic, a quasi-state CCP constructed in Jiangxi area under Soviet assistance and directions, when Mao and Zhou’s faction arose to dominant position within the party, a status that the faction will maintain for decades thereafter.



[1] Lee, 6-8.


[2] Hsu, 6, Lee, 11. These two sources conflict on whether Zhou Tiaozhi, Zhou’s foster parent, was a second uncle or a rather distant relative.

[3] Lee, 8-10.

[4] Lee, 12-13

[5] Nixon’s pursuit of rapprochement with People’s Republic of China became possible largely because of the statesman’s strong anti-Communist credentials prior to the maneuver, which enable him to avoid being described as being soft on Communism.

[6] Hsu, 11-14.

[7] Hsu, 12-16.

[8] Hsu, 15-17.

[9] Lee, 77-80.

[10] Hsu, 20 (Hsu miswrites Hajime to “Hajimi.”).

[11] Hsu, 20. It is also worth noting that this model, under a not-so-strong man Yuan Shikai, failed miserably, leading to the eruption of popular and intellectual discontent that led to May Fourth Movement.

[12] As clearly shown during Sino-American rapprochement of 1972, one of our main subjects.

[13] TIME Magazine, The China Connection, Oct 01, 1979. American Experience with David McCullough, Nixon’s China Game, PBS.

[14] While each of these men’s vision of a new China -even within the Chinese Communist Party-varied considerably, the evil of incompatible warlord regime(s) following Yuan Shikai’s takeover and fall of Xinhai Revolution temporarily united various groups of revolutionaries into one formidable monolith, a pattern that will persists until Chiang Kai-Shek’s Northern Expedition garnered a compelling momentum.

[15] Hsu, 26.

[16] Not Kremlin-inspired, as this term often implied in American political landscape during Cold War era.

[17] Hsu, 29-30.

[18] Hsu, 23-24.

[19] Hsu, 36.

[20] Hsu, 47. Chiang Kai-Shek himself visited Moscow to evaluate the model of Russian Revolution and its usefulness for the Chinese cause. The Soviet Union used its ties with the KMT regime well until the end of World War II whenever it thought such a maneuver would provide it with greater political leverage. This, among other variables, was one of the most important pretexts for the eventual Sino-Soviet Split.

[21] Hsu, 49-50.

[22] Prior to 1934, there were a number of attempts to establish a peasant-oriented resistance base amongst China’s Communist movement, with its most vivid evidence being Jiangxi Soviet Republic that existed from 1931 to 1934. It was the collapse of this that actually began the “Long March.” (Barnouin 56-58).

[23] Barmouin, 36-38.

[24] Barmouin, 38-40. Ji, 41.

[25] Barmouin, 52-53.


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