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A Very Exceptional Communist

ISSUE:  Spring 1977

FOR some 50 years, a modest, self-effacing Chou En-lai, the “gentleman Comrade,” the “mandarin Communist,” unfailingly deferred to the quixotic, domineering Mao Tse-tung, the towering Helmsman of the People’s Republic of China. As in life so on the occasions of their deaths in 1976, Chou was once again overshadowed by his larger-than-reality companion and leader. When, on January 8, Chou En-lai succumbed to stomach cancer, which was discovered in 1972, and his ashes were scattered over the country, no monument was built to his memory, and the man who spoke his eulogy was purged a week later. In contrast, after Mao Tse-tung died on September 9, an entire nation of some 900,000,000 people stood at attention for three minutes in respect; his body will be preserved in perpetuity in a crystal sarcophagus, housed in an appropriate memorial setting, and all the media of China have sought to outdo themselves in professing their sense of loss.

With China, and much of the world, absorbed with the drama of the passing of Mao, the significance of the loss of Chou En-lai is easily underestimated. Furthermore, regardless of the outcome of the succession struggle, Mao’s heirs will doubtlessly continue to glorify his memory, proclaiming his sanctions for their every act, and thus for the foreseeable future, political incentives in China will work to exaggerate Mao’s and depreciate Chou’s contributions to the building of the People’s Republic of China.


Yet, paradoxically, it is possible that Chou En-lai’s vision for China will dominate the future while Mao’s dreams will turn out to have belonged more to the past. The era of Mao, with its themes of peasant heroics, ideological purity, the supremacy of exhortation over material incentives, and the like, has had its place in the modernization of China; but in the future, the themes of Chinese development are going to have to be more closely associated with the thoughts of Chou En-lai. He enunciated these themes when, leaving the seclusion of the special hospital for the senior leaders and appearing for the last time in public, he spoke to the Fourth People’s National Congress in August of 1975. In the packed Great Hall of the People, a gaunt, mortally ill Chou En-lai spoke in his clear, clipped accents of China’s need to build a well-rounded national economy and an enlarged industrial base by 1980, so that by the end of the century the country can become fully modernized by world standards.

Chou En-lai was not a mere administrator and economic technocrat, but the most cultured and sophisticated of all the Chinese Communist leaders. Born in 1898 into a well-established, culturally advantaged family, Chou did experience tragedy early in his life: his father, who had been trained for government service but had settled for running a small retail business, died when his only son was about ready for school. His mother was better educated than any of the other women in their community and therefore she accepted the need for her son to return to the ancestral home to live with a grandfather and receive a proper classical education.

Chou had a lonely childhood. Living with an aged grandfather, and taught by a tutor, the young boy had no friends of his own age. Finally he was sent to Manchuria to the household of an uncle who was a senior police official in the large city of Mukden. The boy was well provided for materially, but socially he was still alone.

In 1913, when he finished primary school, he was sent to Tientsin to attend Nankai Middle School (that is, high school). This exceptional boarding school was founded and run by an outstanding Chinese Christian, Chang Po-ling, who had been influenced by a series of young American YMCA secretaries, including an All-American center from Princeton, a high jumper from Purdue, and the father of John Hersey, the novelist. The school stressed physical fitness, moral commitment, scientific thinking, and team spirit in an atmosphere which glorified athletics and physical labor while ceaselessly denouncing slothfulness and the attractions of creature comforts.(Chang Po-ling’s father had been a bon vivant who had squandered his family’s considerable fortune, and he therefore concluded that for his follies he should will to his son a reverence for austerity.) In this environment of self-dedication and camaraderie, the young Chou luxuriated to the point of founding the “Respect Work and Enjoy Group Life” student society; but when he graduated, he asked his uncle to finance him for a few years of non-degree “student” living in Japan.

In 1917 Chou was in Tokyo, in 1918 in Kyoto, moving about among the Chinese student colony, exposing himself to lectures on Marxism and establishing friendships with aspiring revolutionaries. When the Versailles decision to give the German concessions in China to Japan triggered the May Fourth Movement on the campuses of China, Chou instantly returned to become an activist student at Nankai, which had just expanded to include a college division. He regularly took the two-hour train ride between Tientsin and Peking to attend increasingly secretive meetings with the men who were to found the Chinese Communist Party. He became acquainted with Li Ta-chao and Ch’en Tu-hsiu, professors at Peking National University, who were introducing Marxism to a circle of Chinese intellectuals. Li Ta-chao had just hired a young graduate of Changsha Normal School, Mao Tse-tung, as assistant librarian for the University; Ch’en Tu-hsiu, although dean of social sciences, became more radicalized than the student demonstrators and had to leave the university. In order to avoid arrest by the Chinese police, he fled to the relative security of the International Settlement in Shanghai, where he was to become a founder and first leader of the Chinese Communist Party. Chou met with all these men, but he did not develop any close friendships.

His clandestine activities finally became too much for the Tientsin police, who felt they had solid evidence that he was engaged in anti-government acts. The arrest of Chou En-lai sent Chang Po-ling into action: he immediately mobilized the most notable and respected citizens of Tientsin to protect the rights of his “student,” and then he denounced the police for mistreating a son of a respectable family, and for not being able to distinguish between an idealistic, patriotic liberal— which he said Chou was—and an awful Bolshevik plotter— which he said Chou was not. The boy was, of course, released; but for the rest of his life Chou was to be a dedicated radical.


Thereafter, and to this very day, men of judgment have confidently vouched that Chou En-lai was much too much a rational pragmatist to be a true believer in communism. A few years later, in 1927, when Chiang Kai-shek’s troops were slaughtering the Communist-disciplined workers in Shanghai, Chou En-lai, who was second in command of the Communists, was captured; but his manifest civility apparently caused his captors to release him—an event which made it possible for André Malraux to model his hero in Man’s Fate after Chou En-lai. Then many years later, during the height of World War II, when he was stationed in Chungking as the principal Communist spokesman and dealing daily with American correspondents, Chou again seemed so reasonable and lacking in passion that no one could take him as a revolutionary, And so he contributed to the myth of the Chinese Communists as mere “peasant reformers.” Again, after 1949 when the Communists came to power, at every turn when Peking sought to present a benign face to the world and discount its revolutionary aspect, Chou En-lai dramatically emerged at the forefront to suggest that the Chinese Communists were somehow not really Communists. And so it went right down to China’s calculated opening to America through the invitation to President Nixon to visit China and the last years of clashes between “radicals” and “moderates”—Chou En-Lai always subtly suggesting that his commitment to communism was not as deep as it was.

Shortly after Chou was released from the Tientsin jail, he went to France on a “work-study” program for Chinese intellectuals which the French government was sponsoring in appreciation of the work of Chinese coolies in digging trenches during World War I. Incidentally, Mao Tse-tung was tempted by the program but backed off at the last minute when he apparently felt uncomfortable about going abroad and learning a foreign language. Indeed, Mao was never to travel abroad until he visited Moscow in 1949, while Chou was never intimidated by the thought of living in foreign lands.

In Paris, Chou En-lai artfully straddled the divide between “work” and “study”—he neither bound himself to a job nor accepted any academic restrictions. From 1920 to 1924 he moved about France, Belgium, Germany, and England, mixing with Chinese students who felt the humiliation of China’s weakness, meeting both professional Communists seeking recruits and ambivalent Asian and African Francophiles—he actually met Ho Chi Minh and called him “my big brother.”

The combination of his years in Japan and Western Europe, and a later stay of more than two years in Moscow meant that Chou En-lai lived more years abroad than all of his colleagues on the Politburo combined. It is true that he congregated overseas largely with Chinese students and stayed close to Chinatowns, but just the same he learned enough of foreign ways to become sensitive to cosmopolitan values. Throughout his subsequent career, Chou always had an easy way with foreigners, and he was never as aggressively nationalistic as some of his colleagues.

Thus, in the same manner as he masked his revolutionary commitments behind the appearances of gentility, so he enveloped his passions of nationalism in a cloak of cosmopolitanism. With deft instinct, he disarmed foreign leaders, who had been briefed on the Middle Kingdom Complex, by suggesting that China’s national interests could be more suavely defined than theirs.

In 1924 Chou En-lai returned to China after having helped to found in Europe one wing of the Chinese Communist Party. He was quickly integrated into the main Chinese Communist Party and assigned the duties of the political director of the Whampoa Military Academy at Canton, of which Chiang Kai-shek was commandant. In this role Chou revealed a new, but abiding talent, that of the self-effacing but effective second-in-charge. Chiang Kai-shek had just come back from a period of military training in the Soviet Union, and it was the policy of Moscow to insist that the Chinese Communists should work within the Kuomintang or Nationalist Party. In later years the relations between the Communists and the Nationalists were to become intensely bitter and Chiang was to be viciously denounced in Communist propaganda; but Chou En-lai never publicly attacked Chiang in terms of their relationship at Whampoa, and thus he never violated the confidentiality of a correct subordinate.

Chou was never thereafter to be a principal figure, always the second or more often third behind-the-scenes leader. It is not at all obvious why he did not try to grasp the responsibilities of command. Time and again in the history of Chinese communism, he had chances to reach the top if only he had chosen to take the risks. He was the immediate deputy of the second leader of the Party, Li Li-san, and in the confusion of the early 1930’s he could easily have made a move to consolidate the fragmented movement under his guidance. Yet by holding back, he gained in stature, achieved durability, and was increasingly trusted by all factions in the Party.


Chou En-lai’s ability to survive in the tough in-fighting which brought down one after the other of the early leaders of the Party and also all the heirs-apparent to Mao Tse-tung caused many China-watchers in the 1950’s and sixties to see Chou as a passive compromiser, always adjusting his sails to the shifting winds. He was labeled an “elastic Bolshevik,” a “courtier Communist.” Outsiders often dismissed him as lacking in both principle and spine. Enemies spoke of him as devious and a “gray eminence.” Unquestionably in Chou’s operational code, negotiations and compromise did have a high place.

Yet Chou’s mastery of negotiations stemmed from his keen sense of the difference between form and substance and his artful skill in elevating the apparent significance of form, on which he would then yield a bit, while holding absolutely firm on all issues of substance. At the end of World War II when negotiating with the Nationalists, under the mediation of General George Marshall, Chou was flexible in matters of form, and hence appeared to be the reasonable party, yet he never yielded an inch when it came to matters of real power. In 1954 when in Geneva to negotiate with the Americans about Laos, Chou smilingly proffered his hand to a stern John Foster Dulles who refused to shake it, and then he made a point of visiting Charlie Chaplin, a “refugee from America.”

In steadfastly carrying out his role of a subordinate, Chou was never a sycophant, and he always maintained an aloof dignity, He faithfully deferred to Mao for all command decisions—thus when negotiating over the Shanghai Communiqu6 with Secretary Henry Kissinger, he would repeatedly leave the room for further instructions—but he never displayed awe of Mao. A French visitor to Mao’s private study was horrified when he observed that Chou En-lai was idly turning the pages of a magazine while Mao was holding forth—”Imagine anyone reading a magazine in the presence of General de Gaulle.”

Chou En-lai could assert firm uncompromising authority when he felt it appropriate. In 1964 he stubbornly insisted upon the holding of the non-aligned conference in Algeria, even when it was clear that he could not get significant support from other countries. Two years earlier, he had marched out of the Moscow Conference of Communist Parties when Albania, a surrogate for China, was attacked.

In domestic politics Chou displayed the same combination of artful flexibility and firm, dignified authority. In the years following Nixon’s visit, Chou En-lai skillfully deflected and turned in innocuous directions the campaigns of the “radicals” which could have derailed his policies of better relations with the outside world and greater technology for China. When the “radicals” initiated criticism of Confucius and the ancient novel Water Margin, a barely veiled attack on him and his protegee, Teng Hsiao-p’ing, Chou espoused the campaigns but linked them to explicit attacks on the already dead and discredited Lin Piao.

As a moderating influence in Chinese Communist politics, Chou did at times act bluntly and directly. At the height of the Cultural Revolution when the Red Guards were rampaging about the land, giving vent to all their adolescent aggressions and striving to destroy China’s artistic heritage, there was a moment when battalions of the young were poised to descend upon the garden city of Hangchow, with its priceless museum collections, and smash all that had been passed down from the past. Chou En-lai got on the phone in Peking and demanded to speak with the zealot leader. Somehow Chou penetrated his feverish mind, brought him back to his senses, and saved what is now recognized as one of China’s greatest showplaces.

In the years after China came out of the madness of the Cultural Revolution, Chou’s influence steadily rose, and by 1970 he was defining the new course of China’s policies at home and abroad. The increasing effectiveness of Chou, even after his cancer was diagnosed in 1972, raises the question of why Chou had not asserted more decisive leadership earlier. In retrospect some scholars have speculated that possibly the extremes of the Cultural Revolution could have been averted if Chou had asserted himself earlier and had not passively gone along with Mao.

The answer to Chou’s behavior lies in the secret of the personal relations between Mao Tse-tung and Chou En-lai. We know that from the time Mao gained command of the Chinese Communist Party Chou never openly challenged him. We can speculate that Chou was inhibited in part because he recognized that the Communist movement belonged to rural, interior China, and that he, as a representative of coastal, cosmopolitan China, with its gloss of foreign influences, was destined to be a marginal man. In the early years of Chinese communism it was the intellectuals from the westernized universities who gave life to the movement, but then came the shift to the interior which produced the Long March generation of leaders. As the only cosmopolitan leader who survived the change, Chou had to adjust to a deferential role.

Furthermore, at the psychological level, Chou not only learned how to cope with the moods of Mao, but he also intuitively appreciated Mao’s deep anxieties over the two extremes of being flattered or ignored.

Chou discovered that conduct which adhered to the narrow area midway between these two poles was the safest in dealing with the complex personality of Mao. Chou could thus satisfy one of Mao’s vulnerabilities—his feeling of inadequacy about the “foreign” and “modern” world—without being a threat because he was also passive and hence seemed dependent on Mao.

For reasons too complex to explain here, Mao recognized his dependence upon Chou; but in the end he also had to abandon him, as he did when he declined to use his full authority to support the arrangements which Chou had made for their succession. Mao wrote a poem to Chou En-lai in early 1975 which testifies to his emotional ties to him and which makes more striking Mao’s inability to back Chou’s plans after his death:

To Reveal One’s True Feelings

Loyal parents who sacrificed so much for the nation
Never feared the ultimate fate.
Now that the country has become red, who will be its guardian?
Our mission unfinished may take a thousand years.
The struggle tires us, and our hair is grey.
You and I, old friends, can we just watch our efforts be
washed away?

In the struggle for power which has followed upon Mao’s death, the heritage of Chou En-lai is increasingly appreciated by China’s new leaders. When the four leading “radicals,” including Mao’s widow, were dramatically purged and more than a million Chinese marched down Chang An Ta Chien Street in Peking to hail the new Chairman, Hua Kuo-feng, pictures of Chou En-lai suddenly appeared, proving that he had not been forgotten.

Although it is always treacherous to predict the twists and turns of Chinese politics, it certainly seems likely that to the degree that China progresses in modernization, the memory of Chou En-lai will be increasingly honored. It is significant that foreign observers in Peking have sensed more spontaneous emotional reaction to Chou’s death than to Mao’s even though the rituals of national mourning occurred only for the Helmsman.

* I have sought to explain these and other contradictions in Mao’s personality in Mao Tse-tung: The Man in the Leader (Basic Books, 1976).


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