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Zhou Enlai

(1898—1976) Chinese Communist statesman, Prime Minister of China 1949–76


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(b. Huaian, Jiangsu Province, 5 Mar. 1898; d. Beijing, 8 Jan. 1976)

Chinese; Prime Minister, de facto director of Chinese foreign affairs 1949–76 Zhou Enlai was probably the most respected of all China's Communist leaders. Within China, he is remembered for his restraining influence on Mao, particularly during the later years of the Cultural Revolution. Outside China, he is remembered as the sophisticated diplomat who was personally responsible for ‘normalizing’ Communist China's relations with many of her previous enemies after the 1949 revolution.

Zhou was born into a family with a long tradition of service in the imperial bureaucracy at a time when such families were becoming increasingly impoverished. Completing his middle school education at the prestigious Nankai Middle School in Tianjin, Zhou travelled to Japan in 1917 where he first became interested in Marxism whilst working to oppose Japanese encroachments on China. He returned to China in 1919, and continued his anti-colonialism campaigns by becoming a leading student activist in Tianjin, where he also met his future wife, Deng Yingchao, who also became an important post-1949 political leader in her own right. His political activity brought him to the attention of the Communist International, who sent him on a work-study tour to France in 1920, where Zhou organized Marxist study groups amongst Chinese students and workers in France and Germany.

During the period of Guomindang-Communist collaboration in 1924–5, Zhou was political director of the Nationalists' Whampoa Military Academy. Yet by 1927, Zhou was in conflict with his former allies, as the Nationalists moved to crush the April uprising of Shanghai workers that Zhou had organized and led. As the Nationalists stepped up their attacks, Zhou and Deng Yingchao abandoned their underground work in the cities, where Zhou soon became a key political figure and a crucial power broker. Despite initially opposing Mao Zedong's revolutionary strategy, Zhou's decision to support Mao at the Zunyi conference in the midst of the Long March in January 1935 was crucial in assuring Mao's ascension to party leadership.

Throughout the revolutionary years, Zhou acted as the Communists' chief negotiator. When northern warlords kidnapped Chiang Kai-shek in 1936, Zhou negotiated the Communists' role in the new United Front against the Japanese. He also spent much of the 1937–45 period in Chongqing as the Communists' representative in the exiled nationalist government, and held a number of talks with American and other foreign delegations. After the breakdown of talks with the Guomindang in 1946, he returned to the Communist base area in Yanan, where he helped formulate the successful revolutionary strategy, and laid the foundations for the post-revolutionary structure of political power. He was thus perhaps the natural choice to both take charge of China's international relations, and to oversee government administration as premier after 1949.

China was initially ostracized by the international community, with the Americans leading a trade embargo, and preventing the new People's Republic from taking China's seat at the United Nations. Conflict with the American-dominated UN forces in the Korean War did little to ease the tension. It was Zhou in April 1954 who made the first steps towards reconciliation at the Geneva conference convened to discuss a solution to the Franco-Vietnamese War. Despite being cold-shouldered by John Foster Dulles, Zhou impressed many the way he dealt with Dulles, as well as with his mediation skills.

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Subjects: Warfare and Defence.


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