An apologist for madness, yet revered

Zhou Enlai

November 16, 2007

When I first came to China, almost 30 years ago, most of the people I met were trying to deal with the consequences of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, which had just ended. The new leader, Deng Xiaoping, had told the Chinese - as if they needed telling - that the ten years up to 1976 had been a series of calamities. The problem, for most people, was how to get along in communities that consisted of both victims and perpetrators, of people who had been purged, imprisoned or tortured and those who had been purging, imprisoning and torturing them. Sometimes these men and women worked alongside each other in factories or fields or sat in adjacent offices in ministries or universities. Very often, their response was to bury the past and avoid each other's gaze when possible. In some places, that is still true today.

It is unsurprising that in such an emotional disaster zone there was a common need to find some symbols, some people, who could be generally respected, whatever role you yourself had played in the past. Mao Zedong could not serve: anyone with a position in the Communist Party knew that the chairman had been the prime instigator of the chaos and violence of the Cultural Revolution. His chief deputy, however, had uttered enough benevolent phrases to seem a very different man from his boss. And so the cult of Zhou Enlai began, with victims and perpetrators all praising him as the good man of the Communist leadership.

In my neighbourhood, it did not take long before a surprising number of stories of the premier's good deeds sprang up, some of them almost miracle-like in character. "That premier, he was quite a man. Standing up to old Mao. Protecting people."

Gao Wenqian's book is a useful antidote to the Zhou legend, even though it does not quite manage to shed the image of the good man who - through no fault of his own - managed to remain premier of China through campaigns and purges that enslaved the whole population. The material included in the book is fascinating; it shows how Mao manipulated Zhou and got him to do his bidding, without ever trusting him fully. It also shows the revered premier as a morally and politically ineffectual man who had linked his fate with that of Mao long ago and never had the will or the courage to stand up to the chairman. But the author is too much a product of his time to draw the conclusions from his findings in full. Despite the crimes he was party to, Zhou is still presented as an idealist whose devotion and loyalty are seen as good for China, while in reality they helped create a monstrous political system.

Gao lives in the US, where he is an often-interviewed critic of the Chinese regime. He used to be a researcher at the Central Committee's Documents Research Office in Beijing but he fell out with the party line after the 1989 crackdown on dissidents. When preparing his exit for the US, he copied a large number of materials from the Chinese Central Archives, mostly dealing with Zhou's later years. He then smuggled copies of these documents out of China before leaving himself in 1992. In 2003, Gao published a Chinese version of this book. The English-language version is different from the Chinese, providing more background on Zhou's life up to 1966 and less detail on the last ten years of his life.

The decision to attempt a full-scale biography is in many ways an unfortunate one. Gao has little to add in terms of new information on Zhou's first 68 years, and too often he is satisfied with reproducing the standard line of official Chinese biographies.

It is very difficult to understand Zhou's later choices if one does not realise where he was coming from. His entire career was built on the skills of intrigue and deception he developed on behalf of the Communist Party in its long struggle with the Guomindang. His personality was exceptionally well suited for these purposes: Zhou came across as sincere and well meaning whatever situation he was placed in, even with people who would die at the hands of the Party not long after their meeting with him. One of his assistants once told me the only occasions when he had seen Zhou angry were when he had been ordered to be angry by the party leadership. Mao liked to make fun of him as a man with no conscience and no real beliefs.

But the chairman also realised how capable and hard-working Zhou was. Although those qualities would not in themselves have created Zhou's party career, they certainly came in handy when something big needed to be done. His masterful handling of Richard Nixon's visit to China in 1972, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution, is well described by Gao and is one of the highlights of the book. But on all other matters, too, when given a job by the party Zhou worked exceptionally hard and with an extraordinary attention to detail.

Gao's version of Zhou's role during the Cultural Revolution is that he tried to help people close to him but often failed because of the forces he had to fight. In reality, Gao does not present a shred of evidence to support this view. Yes, he does show that the premier advised his colleagues and friends on how not to get in Mao's way and how to try to survive when they were attacked, but he does not bring forth a single case in which Zhou intervened to save someone's life or career when the chairman had decided that they had to go. While working to abate the worst consequences of the Cultural Revolution for the Chinese state he had helped build, in his personal decisions Zhou followed the chairman right through the whole period of madness.

The main challenge any biographer of Zhou faces is how to explain his slavish behaviour towards Mao. How could a man so massively gifted, so charming, so devoted to his family become Mao's tool through so much evil? Gao never solves this puzzle, and he should not be criticised for it: we probably will never fully understand Zhou's choice. At the core of it, to me, stands Zhou's absolute conviction of the Communist Party as the saviour of China and his belief that Mao was the embodiment of the party. His life, as retold by Gao, is a stark warning against too strong a belief in any political project or in any political leader.

O. A. Westad is professor of international history, London School of Economics. He is writing a history of China's foreign affairs since 1800.

Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary

Author - Gao Wenqian
Publisher - Public Affairs
Pages - 336
Price - £16.99
ISBN - 9781586484156

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