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The revolution's indispensable man

Nixon and Chou En-lai
U.S. President Richard Nixon and Chou En-lai enjoy tea at a guest house in Beijing after the president's arrival in February 1972  

Chou En-lai (1898-1976)

"Now, through the common efforts of China and the United States, the gate to friendly contacts has finally been opened."

One wonders what might have happened to China's Communist revolution if Chou En-lai had not been at Mao Tse-tung's side almost from the beginning. As former U.S. President Richard Nixon once observed: "Without Chou [the revolution] would have burned out and only the ashes would remain."

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Who said that?

Mao was the dreamer and idealist who gave the revolution its passion and purged anyone who didn't share his vision. Chou, premier from the day the People's Republic was founded in 1949 until his death in 1976, was the pragmatist who kept the engine of government running even during Mao's excesses. And it was Chou's diplomatic savvy that kept the door open to a world hostile to Mao's regime.

During the Cultural Revolution Mao said: "How shall we govern China without the premier? It is quite impossible. He is the housekeeper." Mao clearly recognized Chou's importance to him, but the comment also illustrates a servility on Chou's part that mystified the Chinese people and his biographers.

A young Chinese woman, a fashion designer, was quoted by the New York Times in 1986 on the 10th anniversary of Chou's death: "I loved him. He was so mild. He tried to protect everybody. But he compromised so much. Perhaps he should have stood up more often and said, 'This is wrong!' If he had done that, perhaps we wouldn't have suffered so much."


But, as one biographer says, Chou may have abhorred chaos more than he adored communism. He was, in a sense, an enlightened Confucian dedicated to established order. Party discipline was everything. Once he had pledged his loyalty, he was determined to keep it against all odds.

Legendary diplomatic skills

Chou's diplomatic skills were legendary. "Chou can look at you, and with that look, win you over or wither you," an admirer once said. One long-time observer took another view: "[Chou was] one of the master dissemblers of our age.'

His most brilliant feat of diplomacy culminated in February 1972 when he welcomed Nixon to China after more than two decades of American enmity. The event was even more sensational because Nixon was perhaps America's leading anti-Communist.

Chou apparently charmed Henry Kissinger, Nixon's national security adviser, when they met in Beijing in July 1971 for secret talks that set up Nixon's visit. In the historic Shanghai Communique at the end of Nixon's trip the United States acknowledged "that all Chinese on either side of the Taiwan Strait maintain there is but one China and that Taiwan is a part of China." Seven years later the United States broke diplomatic relations with Taiwan and recognized the People's Republic.

Kissinger later called Chou "one of the two or three most impressive men I have ever met ... equally at home in philosophy, reminiscence, historical analysis, tactical probes, humorous repartees."

Raised for the civil service

Chou was born into a comfortable middle class family in Hualan, Jiangsu Province, on March 5, 1898. His family envisioned a career in the civil service for him and sent him to well-regarded schools in Tianjin and Japan.

Nixon and Chou
Nixon and Chou speaking at a banquet during the president's trip to China in February 1972  

Chou was swept up by the revolutionary fervor in Tianjin, leading several student protests when he returned from abroad. In 1920 he was arrested and briefly jailed before leaving for Paris to continue his studies. In Europe he met Deng Xiaoping and other young socialists who would play key roles in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Chou joined the CCP after its founding in Shanghai in 1921 and organized several European branches.

Returning to China the summer of 1924, Chou joined the Kuomintang (KMT) of Sun Yat-sen, then allied with the CCP, and was named deputy political director of the Whampoa Military Academy, commanded by Chiang Kai-shek. He also married Deng Yingschao, a student activist who became a CCP leader in her own right.

From fugitive to insider

After Sun died in 1925, Chiang seized control of the KMT and in 1927 turned against the Communists. Chou barely escaped the bloody purge and went underground. After instigating several failed urban revolts, he retreated to the mountains of Jiangxi Province where Mao and others were creating rural soviets and building the Red Army. By then Chou was a member of the party's Central Committee and Politburo.

Mao was by no means the inevitable choice to be party leader. Chou replaced Mao as the army's political commissar in 1932 and allied with Mao's rivals when they ousted him from making policy. And Chou wasn't always the mild-mannered gentleman the world knew later. During the Jiangxi period, according to biographer Han Suyin, he ordered the execution of 17 members of a traitor's family. It wasn't until the Long March of 1934-35 that Mao reassumed party control. Chou deferred to his authority and the two began their long association.

In 1936 Chiang was forced by his officers to halt the civil war and reunite with the Communists to fight the Japanese. Chou was the CCP's liaison with the Nationalists throughout the war. Afterward he negotiated with Chiang to form a coalition government in talks mediated by a succession of American generals, including George C. Marshall, who called Chou "a statesman of international caliber." The talks failed, and the civil war resumed.

Chou's place in history

As premier, Chou's political and administrative skills held the country together during Mao's experiments. During the Great Leap Forward he was a force for restraint. In the Cultural Revolution he used his influence to protect several officials imperiled by the Red Guards.

Chou's foreign policy largely was driven by anxiety over America's hostility in its support of the Taiwan regime. He sent in troops during the Korean conflict because he was convinced the United States wanted to invade China and reinstall the KMT. In the end, however, it was China's fear of the Soviet Union that motivated Chou's overtures to the United States.

Chou also traveled widely to validate China as the champion of Third World nations, and he was mostly successful. As "The Encyclopedia of the Cold War" puts it, "Chou was recognized as the voice of the People's Republic."

Chou En-lai was probably the most astute politician of his generation in China. He seemed to possess the right combination of toughness and charm at crucial stages in the Communist Party's long quest for power and legitimacy. He died of liver cancer on January 8, 1976.

Profile: Chiang Kai-shek »

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