Zhou Enlai came from a gentry family, studied in Tianjin (Tientsin), and participated in the student movement before sailing for France in 1920. He was a founding member of the Chinese Communist Youth Corps in France, in charge of political indoctrination. He also joined the Nationalist Party (or Kuomintang, KMT) in 1923, his dual-party membership made possible by the united front that KMT leader Sun Yat-sen negotiated with the Soviet Union. After returning to China in 1924, he became the deputy director of the political department of the Whampoa Military Academy, which Chiang Kaishek headed, in which position he recruited young cadets for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to infiltrate the KMT officer corps.
Zhou was able to escape Chiang’s dragnet when the latter purged communists from the KMT in 1927, visited the Soviet Union, and finally surfaced in Ruijin (Juicing), the CCP headquarters in Jiangxi (Kiangsi) Province, in 1931. In Ruijin the Zhou–Mao Zedong (Mao Testing) collaboration began, and lasted until Zhou’s death in 1976. Zhou participated in the Long March (1934–35) and was a negotiator for the CCP in the formation of the Second United Front with the KMT, which came about as a result of Japan’s all-out war against China in 1937. He represented the CCP in China’s wartime capital Chongqing (Chungking) as a member of the People’s Political Council and successfully undermined the KMT with his personal charisma and the reasonable image he projected of the CCP. Zhou represented the CCP in post–World War II talks with the KMT, mediated by U.S. special ambassador George Marshall. Zhou employed the “now talk; now fight” strategy, which contributed to the United States washing its hands of China and the CCP victory over the KMT in 1949.
When the People’s Republic of China (PRC) was established in 1949, Zhou became both premier and foreign minister. He personally handled China’s important international negotiations even after he ceded the foreign minister post to Chen Yi in 1958. Besides taking numerous negotiating trips to the Soviet Union, he also represented China at the Geneva Conference, which ended the First Indochina War in 1954, and at the Bandung Conference of 29 AfroAsian states in 1955, where China was accepted as the leader of the “anti-imperialist” bloc of nations.
He mediated between the Soviet Union, Hungary, and Poland in 1957 but failed to find a peaceful solution with India in the Sino-Indian boundary dispute. He was the lone leader of moderation during the violence and chaos of the Cultural Revolution after 1966 and played a key role in bringing about the rapprochement between China and the United States that culminated in President Richard Nixon’s visit to China in 1972. In his last years Zhou promoted pragmatist Deng Xiaoping (Teng Hisao-p’ing) to be his vice premier. Deng consolidated power and began economic reforms after Mao’s death. Among Mao’s senior associates, Zhou alone escaped being purged in a long career.
- Han, Suyin. Eldest Son, Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898–1976. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994;
- Hsu Kai-yu. Chou En-lai: China’s Gray Eminence. Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1968;
- Lee, Chae-lin. Zhou Enlai: The Early Years. Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994.
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