Reviews of “Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary” by Gao Wenqian and “Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang” edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius

If you are going to read two history of the People’s Republic of China, read Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary by Gao Wenqian and Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang , edited by Bao Pu, Renee Chiang, and Adi Ignatius. These two books revolve around two Prime Ministers of the People’s Republic, Zhou Enlai (who was in the inner circle between 1945 and 1976) and Zhao Ziyang (who was in the inner circle between 1980 and 1989). As such, only four years separate the major political career of these two leaders.

More important, both these books rely on secret documents. Gao Wenqian was Zhou’s official biographer for the Communist Party, and smuggled out his notes to essentially├é┬árewrite his official biography. (The footnote section alone is fascinating, as it cites page after page of documents that only exists= in the Party’s central archives.) Likewise, Prisoner of the State was dictated by Zhao when he was under house arrest, and smuggled out of the country after his death.

Because retirements were never for real in the early People’s Republic, some of the characters are in both books. Deng Xiaoping was an overseas student in France with Zhou, and was instrumental in the rise and fall of Zhao. Likewise, Zhou’s wife Yingchao appears in both books, because of their adoption of Li Peng, the hardline chairman of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee who was instrumental in creating the Tiananmen Massacre. While both Zhou and Zhao admired men like Deng Xiaoping, their views on others would be different. Zhao Ziyang viewed Li Xiannian as a snake in the grass, while he was trusted by Zhou Enlai. Upon Lin Biao‘s death, Xianian saw Zhou crying in his office. After attempting to console him by saying a traitor had been defeated, no matter what damage he caused, Zhou responded, “You don’t understand. It’s not that simple. You don’t understand.”

Last Perfect Revolutionary helps shed new light on the Lin Biao affair. The best analogy would be if, in 1945, Vice President Harry Truman’s plane crashed while on the way to Mexico, and the next day detailed notes for an assassination of President Roosevelt were found in his house. Or if, in early 1949, Beria died in a plane crash over Poland, and similar notes about the planned murder of Stalin were found. In most histories of China or the cultural revolution the sudden turn of events is shocking, with nothing to prepare for it. Propaganda after the fact accused the KMT and the Soviet Union of trying to mastermind a coup, and (either bewilderment, guilt, or the desire to increase the paranoia of Mao Zedong) neither the KMT nor the Soviet Union denied the charge. Last Perfect Revolutionary contains detailed chonricle of the last days of Lin Biao’s life, that contradicts earlier sources but makes sense of the events.

Likewise, Prisoner of the State sheds new light on events of the mid-1980s. It has been speculated, for instance, that Zhao Ziyang’s ouster was prompted by statements made to Gorbachev and others that tried to shift the blame for a crackdown on the protesters of Tiananmen. Zhao denies this, but is surprisingly critical of his own economic policies, which he faults for creating a crisis of confidence. Zhao ascribes similar feelings (an unconcern with his remarks to Gorbachev, but great anxiety of the economic crisis) to other senior leaders, as well. Likewise, while his verbal conflicts with Chen Yun (another hold-over from Zhou Enlai’s biography) were noted by Western observers, Zhao praises Chen as a forthright, honest, and valuable critic, while saving his disdain for Xianian and others.

If you only read one book of modern Chinese history, China and the Legacy of Deng Xiaoping covers both of the era of Zhou and the era of Zhao. However, the chance to read back-to-back, behind the scenes accounts of Party history is one not to be missed. Both Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary and Prisoner of the State: The Secret Journal of Premier Zhao Ziyang are highly recommended.

STEM and History

In an excellent post, my friend Mark observes:

Aggravating matters, even if a prospective teacher did major in history in college, fewer of their professors were full-time history instructors than ever before, meaning that even the quality of the small minority of teachers who are history majors is going into decline! NCLB scorns history as a subject, so school districts across the nation will continue to starve it. Poorer districts will fire all the social studies teachers in coming years and parcel out the history sections to unwilling English teachers in order to save the jobs that will preserve reading scores (assuming those are making AYP in the first place).

Mark is right.

As someone who loves history, this is very sad.

As someone who is concerned with having a competitive educational system, this is fine.

Economic growth does not come from knowledge of history. If it did, Britain’s liberal arts and history-based curriculum would have allowed it to maintain hegemony in Europe through the 19th and 20th century. Insteda, science, technology, engineering, and mathematics are the “STEM” of economic success.


History is a sentiment. Engineering is a reality.

George Bush did America a great favor by creating No Child Left Behind, and scorning history in favor of classes that are the root of STEM. However, like all great moves the consequences of No Child Left Behind are largely invisible to the public.

If America does not wish to become a second-rate power, America must avoid the path of Britain and take up the road of Germany. America must continue to prioritize fields of knowledge that are practical, and recognize that the rest are an enjoyable possibility for those looking for leisure.

Mark concludes the part I excerpted by writing:

After that, the science teachers will start to get the axe.

Ultimately, science can be taught in an intensive, adolescent setting if reading skills exist. Humans are natural learners, but not natural readers. It is more important to teach children how to read and comprehend information than to teach them the sort of vague facts that comprise a school science curriculum. Indeed, it is more important to learn to read than to know the “scientific method,” because the scientific method is itself idealized and not particularly useful to know until one is mid-to-late career.

American schools would be well-served by ceasing to teach history entirely, putting up some photos of Washington and Lincoln and the wall, and using tha hour a day to focus on mathematics and statistics. Indeed, No Child Left Behind implicitly encourages this. Only the backward-looking state standards boards, and the sentiments of our people, keep us from doing this.