Saint and Sinner

4 minute read
Peter Ritter

Writing history is a dicey enterprise for Chinese scholars, and never more so than when the subject is a Communist Party figure like Zhou Enlai — China’s Premier from the founding of the People’s Republic until his death in 1976, and still regarded by the vast majority of Chinese as a saint. “Ordinary people thought he was a good man,” says Gao Wenqian, once Zhou’s government-appointed biographer and more recently the author of the revisionist (and unofficial) Zhou Enlai: The Last Perfect Revolutionary, now available in a translation by Peter Rand and Lawrence R. Sullivan. “He is like a valuable antique in people’s living rooms,” Gao says. “If you tell them that it’s fake or that it has a crack in it, they cannot accept it.”

Officially, Zhou never made a mistake. The Gang of Four, the radical clique that oversaw the Cultural Revolution, was overthrown in 1976. Mao Zedong, once deemed infallible, has been revised downward — according to official formulation — to 70% correct and 30% wrong. Only Zhou, the urbane architect of China’s rapprochement with the West, remains untarnished among China’s revolutionary heroes.

Gao’s book dispels the hagiography. He paints the Premier as thoughtful and scrupulous, yet so blinkered by loyalty to Mao that he sanctioned the arrest of his own brother. Most controversially, Gao challenges the official version of Zhou’s role during the Cultural Revolution, during which an entire generation of Chinese intellectuals — including the author’s mother — was purged and exiled to the countryside. Rather than mitigating the worst excesses of Mao’s disastrous anti-rightist campaign — as the prevailing view holds — Zhou was an active, if not always enthusiastic, participant. Gao cites evidence in Zhou’s own hand: “From now on you make all the decisions, and I’ll make sure they’re carried out,” the Premier wrote to Mao’s power-hungry wife Jiang Qing.

Gao, who emigrated to the U.S. in 1993, is uniquely qualified to air the dirty laundry of China’s communist leaders. For 13 years, he worked as a researcher in the party’s central archive, poring over personal correspondence and classified communiqués. He is no average apparatchik, though: in 1989, he supported the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square. The violence that followed convinced him to leave China — but only after he’d used Western friends to smuggle his notes out of the country. “After the Tiananmen massacre, there arose a strong desire in my heart to do something for the Chinese people,” Gao says. “That was my motive to write the book.”

To Gao, the Premier was a conflicted, even tragic, figure. Zhou was raised in a scholarly family steeped in Confucian philosophy. He lived in Paris for a time and in later life favorably impressed world leaders, including, most significantly, U.S. President Richard Nixon, who described in his memoirs Zhou’s “brilliance and dynamism.” Zhou was everything Mao was not: cultured where Mao was crude, consistent where Mao was mercurial and stoic where Mao was given to flights of paranoia. How, then, did Mao come to so utterly dominate his second in command?

In The Last Perfect Revolutionary, Gao takes an almost psychoanalytical approach to describing a relationship that, more than any other, shaped China’s modern history. Zhou, though never personally friendly with Mao, regarded him as an imperial figure. Zhou’s guiding philosophy might have been taken from the Confucian Analects: “If the emperor asks you to die, you should die.” And, indeed, Mao apparently asked no less. Gao confirms an assertion made in Mao: The Unknown Story, the 2005 biography by Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, that Mao purposefully denied Zhou medical care for the cancer that ultimately killed him. Gao even suggests that Mao may have ordered fireworks to celebrate his Premier’s demise.

This portrait of the party’s Machiavellian backroom politics runs sharply counter to China’s government-sanctioned mythology, and Gao’s book has already been controversial in his homeland. Chinese officials pressured him not to publish, he says, and even made veiled threats toward his family still living in China. The Chinese version, published in 2003, was banned — although it became a black-market best seller. Gao is unsurprised by the fuss. “After Tiananmen, the government lost power,” he says. “Zhou is now the only party leader who the people respect and love. If his reputation is destroyed, there will be no symbol for the party.” At a time when its reins on China’s economic, cultural and social values are loosening, the party needs as many symbols of emotional and ideological legitimacy as it can get. By eroding the icon that is Zhou, The Last Perfect Revolutionary makes plain just how scant these symbols have become.

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