From the book by Han Suyin on the Life of Zhou Enlai

Published in 1994

Zhou remains an outstanding example of virtue, a being of flawless integrity, immune to corruption, unsparing of himself, dedicated to the people’s welfare. He is the embodiment of the ethical and moral standards which moulded China’s culture through the millennia. He was, however, far more than that. He was modern, in the sense of being aware, more than many of his colleagues, that China needed to accomplish three revolutions at once: first, unchaining the shackles of feudalism and foreign exploitation, then to promote an industrial revolution, such as had taken place in Europe three centuries ago; and finally, the technological revolution, which had started at the end of World War 11.

Throughout his life, advances in science and technology were a paramount preoccupation of his. And for him this also meant political enlargement, freedom of discussion, encouraging fundamental research. Hence his repeated efforts to obtain the participation of non-Communist intellectuals; to involve representatives of other political parties in the decisions of the government; to enlarge the right to criticize, to hold divergent opinions.

But Zhou was not a democrat in the American sense of the word. He correctly believed that “pluralism”  would wreak havoc in a China just emerging from decades of civil war and misery, and attempting to break free of millennia of autocracy. He believed in a “common front” representing all tendencies, achieving consensus. He believed that the Chinese Communist Party needed to hear “unpleasant truths . . . accept criticism.”

Zhou Enlai was honoured, respected, popular among many statesmen in the West for his outspokenness, his grasp of issues. He was even liked by his enemies, and government leaders mourned him in Taiwan. He was not only a statesman of world magnitude, a consummate diplomat, a skillful administrator, but also a human, witty, endearing person. Despite all this, there are few books about him, and that is because his activities were so numerous, his talent for adaptation, for changing and surviving, so manifest, that he is at times unseizable. One cannot slot him into a recognizable category. He was indeed a man for all seasons, weathering every storm and vagary in those tumultuous decades of the revolution. He bridged the gap between the past and the transient present, and showed the way to the future. He had no ego, not in the usual narrow sense of the word. He was possessed by something far larger, a sense of total responsibility toward his people and his country. Zhou Enlai did exactly what had to be done in the historical context, and thus, he saved thousands of lives for the future of China. All this makes it difficult to write about him without portraying him as somebody larger than life.


Since Zhou’s death in 1976 and under Deng Xiaoping—Zhou’s chosen successor—economic reforms, the opening up of the country, implicit in Zhou’s last speech on the Four Modernizations delivered in January 1975, have brought about great changes in China. But the very success of the reform policies fostered manifold problems. The erosion of the moral authority of the Communist Party, an avalanche of news and ideas from the West, have awakened new aspirations and desires. The disappearance of traditional ethical and moral standards has created a vacuum of values. Notions of self-sacrifice are ridiculed by a certain portion of the elitist youth in the universities. Greed and self-serving, impatient puerility have surfaced. These are only too easily disguised under the word “democracy,” which is still ill understood in China, (And also in many other nations of the world - GLP) where its connotation is too often the idea that it means freedom to do anything one pleases. Role models are no longer revolutionary heroes, but rock singers and pop stars and successful carpetbagger millionaires from the new, thriving private sector, which is growing fast. However, this is not the full picture. Cynicism, unscrupulousness, may be manifest in the cities, and certainly among the privileged young—who too often are the ones courted by Western observers, and who all too easily get scholarships for trips abroad. But there is also, among the many millions of the young—and 65 percent of China is under thirty-five years old—a genuine hunger for truth, for freedom of discussion, for more participation in decision making.

This is what, way back in the 1950's, Zhou Enlai had sensed, had tried to establish, through the ill-fated Hundred Flowers experiment.

Everywhere in China today, one hears people say openly, loudly, and repeatedly, “Had Premier Zhou Enlai been alive, there would not have been. . . such bad handling of the youth demonstrations.” This refers to the tragic events of Tiananmen Square in June 1989. “Premier Zhou would have gone personally to meet the students. He would have been there every day, talking with them, also listening.. . he would have spent hours with them, as he did with the young Red Guards during the Cultural Revolution.”

“Zhou Enlai would have said to them, ‘It is my fault, my fault, that things are not clear to you.’ He would have won them over, he would have given them a sense of purpose, of dedication.”

The evident chaos in the former Soviet Union has effectively reinforced China’s view that the line adopted—i.e., of making economic reforms first before attempting any political liberalization—was the correct choice.

This assured a basic stability, and the student movement of the last few years, though certainly expressing urban discontent, did not touch the 8o percent of China’s people who live in rural areas, and who are far better off at present than at any time in the previous decades. -

In fact, the present disorder—the economic chaos, the rise of ethnic and religious turmoil, and, quite possibly, the re-emergence of old-fashioned right-wing dictatorial regimes—has had a contrary effect on the Chinese people, persuading them against a desire to emulate what Gorbachev tried to do.

But economic reforms will inevitably also bring about political reforms. At this juncture, the ideas of Zhou Enlai, the consensus he tried to establish between the Communist Party and the non- Communist parties in China, assume a new importance. “We certainly do not want to see chaos, the mess that Russia is in today,” is what most intellectuals in China today say. “This would set China back at least a century.”

“China will find her own way, and Zhou remains an inspiration for all of us. He was defeated in his lifetime, but he may now succeed, beyond death. For men such as he live in our minds forever.”