Zhou Enlai, Josef Stalin, and Other Rightists

My friend Lexington Green of Chicago Boyz sent me an article describing Heaven Cracks, Earth Shakes: The Tangshan Earthquake by James Palmer. Mr. Palmer, whose wife is Chinese, had previously written The Bloody White Baron: The Extraordinary Story of the Russian Nobleman Who Became the Last Khan of Mongolia .

I probably will not read this book, though the subject matter certainly is fascinating. I have mixed-experience with episode-based Chinese histories- I was really disappointed in Nixon and Mao: The Week that Changed the World by Margaret MacMillan. To give the book at least a semblance of a fair shake, though, I downloaded the preview for Death of Mao from the Kindle store…

The impression I get is someone who knows roughly as much as I do, writing a summary of it. My strong suspicion is that he’s reading the same basic set of secondary sources that I am. So unlike authors who dig into primary sources and reveal more about the world, it just seems like a tilted version of it.

In the Kindle preview there’s a line about Mao torturing Zhou by denying him western medicine. Every party of this sentence is correct, except the word “by,” which should be an “and” — Mao did not use or trust western medicine, and this doubtless contributed to his own painful last few years. Like many Chinese he seems to have been personally scared by it. It’s possible to be an evil sadist and still distrust doctors.

A more serious criticism in the except concerns Zhou himself. Palmer is obviously heavily influenced by Zhou Enlai: Last Perfect Revolutionary,” written by former official Party Historian Gao Wenqian (who smuggled his own notes out of China, to re-write the book that he had written at the direction of the Party earlier). But he takes Zhou-bashing too far, and in doing so completely missing how Zhou was able to wield such power.

Palmer says that Zhou probably saved more historical sites than individuals. This strikes me as crazy. Literally every biography I’ve written of anyone who even touched power in this period includes a discussion of Zhou personally influencing events to the benefit of the person being biographied. Here’s a couple:

  • Chiang Kaishek had been Zhou’s superior at Whampoa (“China’s West Point”), where Chiang was Chancellor and Zhou was in charge of the Political Department. Later, after Chiang had been kidnapped near Xi’an and given to Mao, Mao (correctly) argued that this was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and therefore Chiang should be killed. Zhou delayed long enough for Stalin to become personally involved, thus sparing Chiang’s life and returning him to power.
  • Chiang Chingkuo was a student in the Soviet Union, applying to join the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, While there he was writing a serious of pro-Soviet anti-Chiang Kaishek editorials in the student/party newspaper of Sun Yatsen University in Moscow. While Visiting, Zhou spoke to him: “You should not criticize Chiang Kaishek. Even if he is a counter-revolutionary, he is your father.” Chiang Chingkuo went on to be the President in Taiwan.
  • In his autobiography, Ji Chaozhu relates how Zhou inexplicably, and out-of-character, exploded him at a meeting, going into detail about his failures as an interpreter in recent events, and publicly booting him from a high-profile diplomatic trip to Malaysia. Zhou himself mysterious was ill the day of the flight, and also couldn’t go. The plane was destroyed in mid-air by a KMT-placed bomb.
  • In his autobiography, Sidney Rittenberg (who was the only US Citizen to be a member of the Chinese Communist Party, and spent half of his time in the PRC in solitary confinement for various imagined crimes) describes how during an investigation into him, Zhou wrote a letter describing how Mr. Rittenberg engaged in “very serious and costly mistakes.” Rittenberg explains this probably saved his life — in the Communist legal system, “mistakes” concern intra-party matters, while “crimes” are against the Revolution. Mistakes can be corrected; criminals are shot.

Now, Gao’s biography of Zhou, Last Perfect Revolutionary, effectively argues that Zhou was not a disembodied saint, going around the country doing good. Rather, he was working very hard, and very diligently, at building an incredibly large political patronage and support network. The examples given above tie into each other, and show how patronage can have serious dividends (esp. if Chiang Chingkuo tipped off Zhou to the bomb on the plane!)

Zhou Enlai was an emotionally stable version of Josef Stalin. Like Stalin, his objective was wielding personally power through a modern bureaucratic state built on a technically sound but basically illiberal educational system. Like Stalin, Zhou was personally charismatic. Unlike Stalin, Zhou did not believe he was surrounded by invisible enemies (Mao may have helped with this — he was in the room with one extraordinarily visible enemy). What Marx called the “Asiatic Mode of Production” was what Stalin and Zhou would build across Eurasia– a centralized, bureaucratic, essentially statist state focused on maintaining the power elite through an educated Rightist mandarin class as opposed to fighting any Revolution.

From Mao’s perspective, Josef Stalin and Zhou Enlai were both Rightists, interested in establishing a Bureaucracy and leveraging the forces of production to buy-off social unrest. Mao, who found Rightists more predictable and less idealisitc than Leftists, was very comfortable working with right-wing leaders (Stalin, Nixon) and parties (the U.K Conservative Party, and the West German Christian Democratic Union) abroad for precisely this reason.

Mao “rode the tiger,” leveraging domestic rightists (like Deng Xiaoping, a Leninist, and Zhou Enlai, a Stalinist) to build up enough power to overthrow everything old and hateful about China in one blow — he tried this once during the Great Leap Forward, and again during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Mao failed twice. Zhou won. Deng won. The rightists won.

The tiger of Rightism that Mao rode kept him alive and in power, but as Mao told Nixon, his lasting influence might be limited to a few farms outside Beijing.

The government in China today is as basically Rightist as it was 150, or 1,500, years ago.

And China is more powerful for it.

8 thoughts on “Zhou Enlai, Josef Stalin, and Other Rightists”

  1. Excellent post!

    I, too, was disappointed in MacMillan’s Nixon and Mao (her book, Paris 1919, is better). Unfortunately, I can count on two hands the number of “China” books I’ve read—and they are spread over the last 25 years.

    Jung Chang’s MAO and Wild Swans were good reads, but depressing—perhaps that is why I’ve avoided these books? In the anti-library I have Poorly Made in China, and Tibet Unconquered—but they are way down in the stack. That said, while you may have already have a post of the topic, could you share five or ten “must read” China books?

    Many thanks in advance!

  2. Recently read Kissinger’s “On China” and “The Man Who Loved China” (which I recommend). Kissinger seemed to sugar coat things (Zakaria’s “Post-American World” I found better). Currently reading Chiang Kai-Shek: China’s Generalissimo and the Nation He Lost”. My wife’s father had been head of 1154th engineering combat group in Europe (I’ve copied a lot of his status reports at national archives). Engineers were frequently out in front of other units towards the end and appears to have liberated some camps (he had a whole collection of German officer dangers from surrenders, all of which were stolen a few years ago). After end of hostilities, he appeared to refuse an district command (possibly because of what he observed in the camps … and as a “reward”?), they sent him to China as adviser to the generalissimo (and he was able to take his family with him to Nanking). He died before I ever met him.

  3. J. Scott,

    Thanks for the kind words!

    All histories are biased, especially when it comes to protecting one’s turf and/or sources. Here are several though that overlap enough to give a multi-sided view of the critical years of the Chinese Communist Party

    “Stilwell and the American Experience in China” by Barbara Tuchman. [1]
    A painful blow-by-blow account of why many in the US government wrote off the KMT as an effective partner in China. Hamid Karzai is the reincarnation of Chiang Kaishek…
    Major caveat: Barbara Tuchman clearly fell in love with her subject, and is .

    “The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Chinkg-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan” by Jay Taylor [2]
    A painful blow-by-blow account of how much was lost when the mainland fell to the Communists, as shown by how much was eventually gained on Taiwan. Saif al-Islam al-Gadaffi is the reincarnation of Chiang Ching-kuo

    “Deng Xiaoping and the Transformation of China” by Ezra Vogel [3]
    From Deng’s early membership in the Chinese Communist Party (France) to his de facto internal exile following the Tiananmen debacle, Vogel tells the story of the CCP’s first 70 years.

    “The Man Who Stayed Behind” by Sidney Rittenberg. [4]
    Near the end of Tuchman’s book, GEN Stilwell states that if he was a young man, he would grab a rifle and fight for Mao. Some were young men in those years. This is the autobiography of the only American to join the Chinese Communist Party while maintaining not taking Chinese citizenship. Spoiler: half the time is spent in solitary confinement.

    And then any one of the following

    “Zhou Enlai: Last Perfect Revolutionary,” by Gao Wenquan. [5]
    The official Party historian smuggled his notes (and footnotes!) out to the US, where he re-wrote the official, secret CCP history of Zhou Enlai.

    “China Marchest West: The Qing Conquest of Central Asia,” by Peter Perdue.
    The excellent record keeping of Imperial China makes the formation of Qing Dynasty seem earily everyday. The three-way war between the successor states of the Mongole Horde — Manchus, the Muscovites, and the Turks, arguably continues to this day.

    “On China” by Henry Kissinger.
    Not so much a history of China as an introduction to Realism that uses Chinese history as its theme.

    [1] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2010/01/29/review-of-stilwell-and-the-american-expeirence-in-china-1911-1945-by-barbara-tuchman-and-the-generalissimo-chiang-kai-shek-and-the-struggle-for-modern-china-by-jay-taylor.html
    [2] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2010/02/24/review-of-the-generalissimos-son-chiang-ching-kuo-and-the-revolutions-in-china-and-taiwan-by-jay-taylor.html
    [3] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2012/01/27/review-of-deng-xiaoping-and-the-transformation-of-china-by-ezra-f-vogel.html
    [4] http://search.barnesandnoble.com/Man-Who-Stayed-Behind/Sidney-Rittenberg/e/9780822326670
    [5] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2009/09/04/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.html
    [6] http://search.barnesandnoble.com/China-Marches-West/Peter-C-Perdue/e/9780674016842
    [7] http://www.tdaxp.com/archive/2011/06/06/review-of-on-china-by-henry-kissinger.html

  4. Lynn,

    That’s fascinating.

    He saw so much in his life.

    Do you know any good books about the American experience in Nanjing during those years? I know so little of it…

  5. I’ve scanned a lot of letters that my wife’s mother wrote to her mother (from China) … and I’m trying to track down “MAGIC” (military advisory group in china) resources at national archives. When the city was ringed, they were airlifted in army cargo plane out of Nanking to Tsingtao on 3hrs notice where they lived on USS Repose for three months. I recently posted on facebook part of scan of Tsingtao paper published by US Marines.

    I’ve yet to run across some published description of life In Nanking.

  6. Dan,

    You are welcome and thanks for the references! At some point, I intend to do a China quarter.

    BTW, do you speak Mandarin? I’ve a post command sub captain friend who is learning Mandarin as a form of mental gymnastics; and the thought appeals to me.

  7. J Scott,

    我不可能。我的中文时马马虎虎。特不好。

    By far the best way to learn to spoken Chinese is ChinesePod. The podcasts very well designed, very methodologically sound, and rely on modeling more than repitition, so they’re ‘easy.’ 10-15 minutes of listening to Chinese/English banter once a day really helped me, giving me my brilliant, “drunken kindergartender” level of fluency. :-)

    I’m currently taking a Chinese course at work, focusing on writing, but by far the guy best at it is the person who has spent the least amount of time oversees: but he’s been digilient with ChinesePod, and uses their 1:1 skype lessons as well.

    Lynn,

    Amazing!

    If nothing else, you might consider editing and self-publishing…. This would exactly be the use for that — these are really unique documents of a critical time in history!

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