qatsi (qatsi) wrote,

The Really Dear Leader

Book Review: Eldest Son - Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976, by Han Suyin
This book was recommended by the programme notes to John Adams' opera Nixon in China that I went to see a few years ago.

Zhou was born into what might be called a downwardly-mobile family at the turn of the twentieth century. Han takes care to cover not only Zhou's upbringing, but also the political environment in China at that time, with the European powers engaged in their colonial ambitions over a weakened imperial government. Zhou travelled to Japan as a student, and then to Paris in the 1920s. Han asserts that Zhou was not an instinctive Marxist; more an enlightened Confucian. Nevertheless, he generally sided with left-minded company and eventually joined the Party. Relations between the CCP and Moscow were never easy; the Chinese Communists did not want to discard one imperial or colonial regime only to replace it with another. The inter-war years in Europe were marked by more-or-less continuous Civil War in China, between Chiang Kai-Shek, local warlords, the Japanese, and the Communists. It appears Zhou and Mao, though aware of each other previously, became allied during the Long March years. Mao had the creative spark and skill as a guerrilla commander; Zhou was the perfect and dutiful administrator, able to hold factions together from in-fighting and present their case at home and abroad.

Following the revolution, Zhou became Prime Minister, a position that he would somehow manage to hold until his death. Han writes interestingly on the relative Chinese views of America and the USSR; Mao and Zhou were keen to be recognised by the US in preference to Chiang Kai-Shek in Taiwan, not only because they wanted American funds and technology, but also because they wanted to avoid dependence on the Russians. Of course the Korean War put paid to this. Internally, continuous in-fighting within the CCP led first to the disastrous Great Leap Forward and later to the madness of the Cultural Revolution. Zhou worked hard to maintain a progressive direction amid so much destructive force, sheltering intellectuals and scientists where possible. Relative stability returned to the government as Mao once again became concerned about his personal position, and Zhou became more secure in his final years, including arranging Nixon's visit to China and installing Deng Xiaoping as his own successor, ensuring that the Gang of Four did not rise to power following Mao's death only a few months after his own.

Han was acquainted with Zhou, having met him on a dozen or so occasions, and she writes sympathetically and defensively about him. Wherever there is hinted criticism, such as in early military setbacks, the question of Tibet, or acquiesing in the Cultural Revolution, there is always an exonerating circumstance. It's not clear from a single source whether this is justified or deferential, but it's still an interesting portrait of a fascinating statesman.
Tags: books
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