Tag Archives: Zhou Enlai

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.

What Mao meant by “Left” and “Right”

How could Mao Zedong call the Chairman of the Communist Party, the President of the People’s Republic of China, and the Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China “Rightist,” while also labeling the Soviet Union “Rightist,” while confiding to Nixon that he trusted governments of Rightists more than governments of Leftists?

Because those terms meant different things to Mao than they mean to us.

The iconic picture from Tiananmen Square, showing the Goddess of Democracy starring at Chairman Mao Zedong, is often interpretted to show Democracy starring down Communism. Rather, the Goddess and the Chairman were two faces of what intellectualls in the square would have identified as Leftism: a belief in the spontaneous power of the people to organize amongst themselves for the common good when an oppressive regime has been removed.

Both the portrait of the Chairman and the statue of the Goddess were positioned along the Central Axis, or “Dragon Line,” of Beijing. While they face each other, they both look at right angles away from Zhongnanhai, a former imperial garden and public park where the Communist leadership lives and works. At the time of Tiananmen the party machinery was led by Deng Xiaoping and Chen Yun, two survivors from the old days fighting the KMT. Deng and Chen were two faces of what reflective officials in Zhongnanhai would have identified as Rightism: a belief in the importance of an educated bureaucracy to guide a people basically incompetent to look after themselves.

In the days before the Massacre the protesters showed classic signs of what Mao would have termed the people’s spontaneous energy



(If the liberated area of Beijing actually stretched to the Third Ring Road, as Wikileaks implies, this would have included all of non-suburban Beijing in 1989. The term ‘Tiananmen Square Massacre’ may thus be as much of a misnomer as if the fall of 1871 Battle of Paris as the “Place de la Concorde Massacre'”)

Understanding that the Massacre was interpreted by all reflective individuals involved as a a Left/Right struggle is critical to understanding the 40 years that proceeded it, and the 22 since:

Under slogans such as “Down with one-party dictatorship!” and greatly aided by the KMT (full of spies, wildly corrupt, and distracted by the greatest purge in the history of 20th-century regimes), the Chinese Communist Party established “New China” in 1949. After referring itself to a time as simply the Republic of China, and then trying on Democratic People’s Republic of China, the new regime soon settled on calling itself the “People’s Republic of China.”

The Communists made many promises to gain power, and broke nearly all of them.

The regime was lead by its Chairman, Mao Zedong, with tremendous help from Returned Students (including Deng Xiaoping) and the Whampoa Clique (such as Lin Biao). Certainly highly-influential people, including Premier Zhou Enlai, acted as godfather to both factions. But 1949 China had not yet been purged of ideology, and both Left and Right tendencies were visible to Mao in the party.

Mao’s dilemma, as a Leftist, is that naive attempts to simply exterminate the bureaucratic class had failed as early in the Chinese Soviet Republic (1931-1937). The CSR’s attempt at Leftism failed for the same reason the first liberal Chinese Republic failed in the 1910s: material conditions had not created a sufficient number of liberals to lead the country in the 1910s, as it had not created a sufficient number of educated peasants to lead the CSR in the 1930s.

Mao’s struggle, from 1949 till his head, was to allow the Right to build up the State, the Military, and the Bureaucracy, to safeguard the development of the peasantry until the time they were able to spontaneously organize. Thus, Mao typically governed as a Rightist in order to build Leftism.

Mao’s right-hand man and nemesis, Zhou Enlai, had the opposite estrategy. Zhou’s great legacy was to rebuild the bureaucracy that had nearly been destroyed by a serious of revolutions following 1911. Mao needed Zhou as a Rightest leader to give the Leftist cohorts he was building up time to mature. Zhou needed Mao’s political power and cover to build a Rightist bureaucracy. Between the two of them they allowed 100 million Chinese to die, because neither was willing to abandon the other in their opposing quest to change China.

Mao’s first designated successor, Liu Shaoqi, was a Rightist whose prestige was greatly helped by Mao’s failed Left-wing shock, the Great Leap Forward. Unfortunately for Liu, he was one of the first victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s second designated successor, Lin Biao, spoke and agitated as a Leftist, while secretly believing in Rightism and governing as one, as well. Lin became one of the last victims of the Cultural Revolution.

Mao’s third designated successor, Wang Hongwen was a Leftist. He also was proof of Mao’s fear that the peasantry was not yet competent enough to govern. Wang was simply shoved aside due to general incompetence and political impotence, though he would be arrested, tried, and jailed (for a time) later following Mao’s death.

Mao’s fourth designated successor, Hua Guofeng, and Hua’s successor, Deng Xiaoping both attempted to straddle the Left-Right divide, but for different reasons than Mao.

Mao was a Leftist who used Rightists as tools. Hua was a harmless opportunitist whose only contribution was to promise to say whatever Mao would have said, and do whatever Mao would have done (really!). Deng, in contrast, viewed both the Left and Riught as tools to helping China stand up.

Deng, like Mao, was an earthy fellow. Both enjoyed shocking audiences, Mao with profanity and Deng with undiplomatic honesty. Both felt extremely comfortable granting and taking favor from former peasants. While Mao was a romantic who truly believed in the self-organizing ability of the people, however, Deng had traveled abroad and learned a much deeper lesson: being poor sucks. From watching his friends die at a French factory, to learning his father had to sell land to support his living experiences overseas, Deng keenly believed that China’s problem was not a distant bureacracy but grinding poverty.

Like Mao, Deng could attack the Bureaucrats when it suited him (and both called them “women with bound feet” at times). Like Mao, Deng could rely on Rightists to govern for him, or take away their power when it seemed to obstruct the economic power of the people. Unlike Mao, however, Deng lived without a romantic sensibility, and so could easily believe cases were disasterous levels of incompetence emerged from trusting the common people.

Deng’s lack of heart-felt Leftism lead him to be purged three times (and to the crippling of his son), but his usefulness as an attack-dog against bureaucrats, his focus on results, his ability to praise Mao as long as Mao lived, and his wide network of friends meant he was never permanently gone.

Mao used the right to built the Left, Zhou used the Left to build the Right, Deng used the Right and Left to build China.

In the present day, China has a Bureaucracy that runs the second-largest economy in the world. While it’s relative size is probably smaller than in ancient days, this is the greatest performance for the bureaucracy in China’s history since the Great Divergence.

Also in the present day, China has a population that is connected to the world and knowledgeable about it. While it’s relative freedom is probably smaller than during the Republic, this is the greatest performance for the people since the Nanjing Decade.

When I visit China I am struck by the admiration for Mao, Zhou, and Deng, though of the three only Zhou is considered to be perfect. Opinions on Mao range from “Mao is #1” to “Mao is Evil,” while Deng’s reputation is admiration for the economic miracle combined with sadness at the increase in crime, corruption, and class differences.

In both China and the West the terms “left” and “right” seem to originate with the idea that the “right” is in support of the ruling powers while the “left” is opposed. At the time these terms were first used, however, the sttaus quo in the West meant rich landowners whose origins traced to the feudal era, while in Chian the status quo meant the powerful bureaucracy. In both China and the United States the Left/Right divide relates to the citizen’s relation to power: in China Left therefore meant being opposed to the bureaucracy, while in the West Left meant being opposed to the rich or the socially normal.

Review of “The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan” by Jay Taylor

In The Microsoft Way, historian Randall Stross argues that the market for IBM-compatible PC software in the 1980s and 1990s was contested by two competent companies, Microsoft and Inuit, and a train load of incompetent competitors. While most entrants to that market got lucky once or twice, and rode that cash cow as long as it could, Microsoft and Intuit were able to execute short-term tactics and long-term strategies. If such a view can be transplated to Chinese history, the Chinese Civil War was a multi-way battle with a large number of incompetent, violent and lucky competitors, and three factions actually capable of both winning and ruling

The Returned Students

The Whampoa Clique

The Youth Corps

In this view of history, the fight for China was not between Chiang Kaishek and Mao Zedong, two lucky competitors, but by these three interlocking factions which used allegience to Chiang or Mao as a way of deflecting charges of ambition. The first of these three factions, the Returned Students, were those who had earned a Continental education in the west, either from a study-abroad program in France or from Sun Yatsen University in Moscow. The second of these factions, the Whampoa Clique, where those who were faculty or students at the “West Point of China,” the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton City. The third of these factions, the Youth Corp, established as a cannibalizing agent, “in but not of” the KMT.

These three factions overlapped. Zhou Enlai, Mao’s second-in-command, was a Returned Student who taught at Whampoa. Chiang Chingkuo, Chiang’s second-in-command after the relocation to Taiwan, was a Returned student who was the Vice Chairman of the Youth Corps.  These factions even overlap with my own life — my wife’s grandfather studied at Whampoa.

These three factions, like Microsoft and Intuit, shared a focus on a high-quality work force. The active members of these three organizations during their youth were young men who wanted to make a difference and despised corruption. It is easy to forget that Zhou Enlai was only 30 when he met a much younger Chiang Chingkuo in Moscow, and told him to tone down his criticizing   father, because it was unbecoming of a son. It is easy to forget that Lin Biao was only 27 during the Long March. It is even easier not to know that Ching Chungkuo, as director of Taiwan’s security services, warned Zhou Enlai of an upcoming attempt on his life — and that Zhou Enlai seemingly did not inform Mao of this. While most factions in the civil war — the Kwantung Army, the Left KMT, the Chinese Nationalist Army, and others were to varying extents patriots of their cause, only these three were able to generate the high internal cohesion among young men required to revolutionary China.

My first reaction on reading The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan was that the 20th century was simply one long tragedy. So easily, so many things could have gone so much better. What if Chiang had given Zhou Enlai the freedom at Whampoa that he later gave that other Communist, Chiang Ching-kuo? What if General Stillwell, who despised Chiang and helped lead American public opinion against the KMT, and met the up-and-coming Chingkuo (who substantively agreed with him on every important issue)? What if, what if?

But to do so, I think, ignores the utter chaos that befell China twice: after the fall of the Benedict Arnold of China, and after the Japanese Invasion.While a unified front would have been better, the emergence of three competent factions (composing a total of, say 100 able individuals) was a miracle in itself. That the old men of the east were stuck in the poetic worlds of Confucius and the Water Margin, and thus their attempts to modernize China were poisoned by a lethal dose of corruption and internal violence, is perhaps not as notable as the men they had around them.

The difference between Kaishek and Zedong was not their military strategy (both were adherents of the Strategic Retreat), their cosmology (Mao famously scored Zero Points on the mathematics portion of his college entrance exam; Chiang Kaishek famously expressed astonishment that Burma had a rainy season that would interfer with military operations), their management style (“working toward the Chairman,” allowing them to capture all glory and escape all blame), or their willingness to betray their followers. Rather, the difference was this: Chiang was capable of trust, Mao was not. As they reached the age when succession planning became increasingly important: Chiang turned Taiwan over to the men of the Youth Corps.  Mao turned on the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique in a holocaust of violence.

Sun Yatsen, the (theoretically) Hawaiian-born first President of China, had this has his political motto: That a government of the people, by the people, and for the people should be established in China. Through this Youth Corps, Taiwan finally realized these Three People’s Principles through the integration of the Mainland and Taiwanese political elites, economic development, and last through democracy. A government “by the people” was established on Taiwan in stages, from the lifting of Martial Law in 1987, the legalization of a free press in 1988, the first fair elections to the Legislative Yuan in 1992, the first direct Presidential election in 1996, the first election of an opposition President in 2000, and the democratic return to power of the previously ruling party in 2008. Perhaps China, now firmly ruled by those given positions by the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique, will soon begin on this last, trickiest path.

Jay Taylor’s The Generalissimo’s Son: Chiang Ching-kuo and the Revolutions in China and Taiwan is an excellent book, and a worthy “prequel” to Taylor’s more recent book, The Generalissimo: Chiang Kai-Shek and the Struggle for Modern China. But just as that book does not stand alone, this does not either. Taylor’s biography of Kaishek should be read with Tuchman’s biography of General Stillwell, as otherwise the public declarations of America’s general in China that, if he were a young man, he would grab a gun and fight for Mao is inexplicable. In the same way, Taylor’s biography of Chingkuo must be read with Gao’s Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary to understand that the Youth Corps’ true competitors were not the incompetent and lucky, like the Soong Dynasty and the C-C Clique, but those on the other side of the Straits — the Returned Students and the Whampoa Clique.

The Microsoft-Intuit battle very nearly ended in 1995, after the leadership of the Microsoft and Intuit cliques agreed to a cash-and-stock buyout of Intuit by Microsoft. This was only averted through direct U.S. Government actions. The parallels to the possible near future are striking.

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 rewrite 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.