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  • Zhou Enlai: A Political Life
  • Chen Jianyue (bio)
Barbara Barnouin and Yu Changgen. Zhou Enlai: A Political Life. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, 2006. vi, 397 pp. Hardcover $52.00, ISBN 962–996–244–6. Paperback $25.00, ISBN 962–996–280–2.

On January 8, 1976, Zhou Enlai (b. March 5, 1898), Chinese premier, died of cancer at the age of 78. A few days later, when Zhou's funeral cortege passed by for cremation, hundreds of thousands of ordinary Chinese lined up along Changan Road, the main street of the capital, to pay their final tribute to their "beloved premier." Few could hold in their emotions. It was really a great emotional event, given the Chinese tradition of not showing one's emotion in public. This unstructured, public outpouring of grief indicated nothing but Zhou's popularity among the Chinese people.

Since his death, the Chinese official history books have portrayed Zhou as a great or even saintly man who helped Mao establish and build a "new China." Zhou is particularly remembered for helping maintain the minimum social order and saving many ranking officials when the Mao-initiated Cultural Revolution turned the nation upside down. In 1998, the centenary of his birth, a flood of articles in memory of "Premier Zhou" appeared in China, presenting a sharp contrast to much of the criticism awarded to Mao.

The compassionate approach applied by Communist scholars to the study of Zhou has been used by a few scholars outside China. In 1978 John Roots, whose missionary father saved Zhou from the Nationalist hunt in the 1920s, published a biography of Zhou. The China-born American journalist praised Zhou for his "infallibility." David Zhang's Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping in the Chinese Leadership Succession Crisis (1984) portrays Zhou as a "model communist," a "model scholar-states-man," and the "people's model premier." Ronald Keith's The Diplomacy of Zhou Enlai [End Page 372] (1989) believes that Zhou, whose realism was reflected best in his rational understanding of national and international policy, was a better Communist than Mao.

In 2003 Gao Wenqian, a former Communist expert on Zhou, published Zhou Enlai wannian (Zhou Enlai's later years) in Hong Kong. Challenging pro-Zhou scholarship, the book aims to break the myth that Zhou was the "kind-hearted friend" of the Chinese people who always tried in a subtle way to influence Mao so that the latter's policy blunders would be less costly. Instead, Zhou appeared as an enthusiastic supporter of Mao, and he did not help protect many Communist leaders during the Cultural Revolution. Even the restitution of Deng Xiaoping at the end of the Cultural Revolution was not Zhou's plan, but Mao's. In this case, Mao simply used Deng to restrain Zhou, a man of "a very complex character" and "a tragic hero."

Last year, Barbara Barnouin, a China expert based in Geneva, and Yu Changgen, a former Chinese diplomat, published Zhou Enlai: A Political Life. The two had previously coauthored a book on Zhou and Communist China's foreign policy. Contrary to the Chinese official scholarship, the two authors find that Zhou actually persecuted "a number of high-ranking members" of both the party and the military before and during the Cultural Revolution. Such persecutions also reflected Zhou's desire for revenge (p. 5). In order to please Mao, Zhou did not hesitate to betray his friends and relatives. On a few occasions, he even personally signed arrest orders (p. 176). To Barnouin and Yu, the image of Zhou as "the great protector" denies the historical truth (pp. 244–245). The authors further contend that the brutal side of Zhou was exposed earliest and most evidently in his reaction to the betrayal of Gu Shunzhang, his aide, to the Nationalist Government in 1931. Zhou personally had Gu's whole family murdered. Zhou's justification was simple: "[M]orality had no place in the face of the cruelty of the GMD agents against left-wingers" (p. 47).

How could Zhou manage to survive the various political persecutions launched by Mao while many of his colleagues failed? The authors credit this to Zhou's ability to...