Sunday, December 04, 2011

The Last perfect Revolutionary - Zhou Enlai, by Gao WenQian

Unlike official, dry biographies, this book gives you a more complex,unflattering insight into the last Perfect Revolutionary – Zhou Enlai.

Perfect because Zhou Enlai has portrayed a selfless image, one that of Zhuge Liang, one who worked himself to death for a cause. What I remembered most from the previous biography – 周恩来画传, was how the citizens of Beijing - 十里送总理 when Zhou Enlai passed away. And the other was while many of the old guards changed wives when they got rich and powerful, Zhou Enlai had this to say even though he had no children of his own:” 全国的孩子都是我的孩子”

Hence perhaps the best evidence of his dedication to the cause can be seen by how he proposed to his wife:

“ I had become a firm beliver in Marxism, and thus my need was for a lifelong companion who would share this devotion with me, a comrade-in-arms who would bear the hard times with me and survive to see another day. So I initiated the talk with Zhang Ruoming to clarify my stand and began to exchange letters with Deng Yingchao whom I soon decided to issue a proposal of marriage.”

In his proposal to Deng Yingchao, it was a postcard which featured a portrait of Robespierre and wrote” Some day we too will meet together to confront the guillotine arm-in arm. “

What  kind of proposal is this?!! Proposing your loved one to die with you.

To make it worse, when Yingchao arrived in Guangzhou to meet Zhou Enlai after she returned from France, Zhou didn't pick her up from the boat. Instead, when she finally arrived and entered a meeting that he was conducting, he only smiled and went back to the intense discussion. After the meeting ended, he got up and hustled out without bothering greeting his wife to be. That was workaholic Zhou Enlai at a young age.

The less than perfect Zhou Enlai:

The big takeway from this book is it paints a less than perfect picture of Zhou Enlai and the author Gao Wenqian attempts to psychoanalyze Zhou Enlai.

As Deng Xiaoping noted, “ Without the premier the Cultural Revolution would have been much worse. And without the premier, the Cultural Revolution wouldn't have dragged on for such a long time”

Perhaps, Zhou Enlai was trying to avoid a larger disaster of a civil war but his actions were really uncomprehensible to those of us who hold him in high regard.

During a meeting of the Standing Committee of the Politburo at Cherish Benevolence hall on Feburary 11, 1967. The old marshals used this occasion to attack the leftists. Yet Zhou Enlai did not speak up with courage like the old marshals even though he shared many of the same feelings as did the old marshals. To make things worse, Mao ordered Zhou to chair the struggle meetings against Tan Zhenlin and Marshals Chen Yi and Xu Xiangqian – people who dared to stand up and criticise. Peope whom Zhou had also enjoyed good relationships with over the years.

Perhaps, the premier believed that as long as he remained on the inside circle of power, his presence will make a difference. Someone had to hold the fort and maintain a semblance of order while turbulence spread throughout the country.   However, it is true that guilt tore away at Zhou as he didn't defend his veteran brothers at arms. Zhou's medical team advised him not to attend He Long's funeral ceremony. He went. In his weakened state, Zhou made a sincere deep bow to He Long's ashes, 3 more to He Long's protrait, and 3 more bows to He Long's family.

Yet some do think that Zou Enlai was truly submissive to Mao. For example, Zhou actually wrote a letter to Chen Yi, Tan Zhenlin ( those that spoke up ) in late April 1967 when Mao again shifted gears and eased up a bit on the old guard of the Party.   In the letter, Zhou warned them against any errant behaviour that might set back the incremental improvement in political climate, telling them not to carry out acts of revenge.

As to why Zhou was willing to be so submissive to Mao, Gao in his psychoanalyse of Zhou said that Zhou had this deep seated psychological need to be a leader's number two due to Zhou's childhood of 2 mothers( one biological and one adoptive).  Zhou  lacked an active father and he was throughly trained in the Confucian arts of yielding, tolerance and compromise.

Hence, during the Cultural Revolution, Zhou was trying to follow his personal mantra of “ ageing gracefully” and avoiding conflict with Mao, while his personal conscience bespeech him to do whatever to save the country.

But what did he get out of this devotion or loyalty to Mao? When Zhou was diagnosed with bladder cancer, his medical team believed that he had 80 per cent chance of recovery. In line with the rules, that health care for government offcials above the of the average Politburo member had to be approved by Mao, Mao denied proper treatment for Zhou - if this was true, Mao may have determined the death of Zhou.

Yet, it was too at this point of terminal illness, that one can witness that Zhou Enlai was no ordinary man.  His physical endurance mimicked his enormous psychological tolerance. Pain would sweep over his body, drive him in and out of consciousness. His body was bath in a cold sweat. Yet while he was awake, he wouldn't make the slightest sound. Only during his sleep, could one detect a slight moan.

Zhou and Deng:

According to Gao, Mao wanted to destroy Zhou after Lin Biao's affair but he needed someone to run the country. So came Deng Xiaoping. Historians perpetutate the misconception that Deng Xiaoping was Zhou's protege, but he is Mao.

However, Zhou was worried the aggressiveness that Deng pursued reform will hurt in the end. Zhou completely agreed with the need to repair the damage, but he opposed the haste the Deng was doing. If Deng fell, the entire impetus of economic and political reform will collapse with him.

When Mao finally made a decision to act on Deng, Mao told Deng “ The wind always knock down the tallest tree.” Deng made a beeline to see Zhou in the hospital.   Zhou just lay there, stared at Deng, and finally said” Why can't you be a little tolerant?” and turned his face with a bitter look of sadness to the wall.  

And it’s true. Deng Xiao Ping was purged a second time and Hua Guo Feng became Mao’s designated successor.

Then for first time, Zhou took the offensive against Mao. Zhou recommended that Deng replace him as premier, let word out with external visitors from Romania about Deng has taken over most of his job. His medical staff opposed but Zhou still went ahead with the Romania visit to take the opportunity to sell Deng.

Zhou before he was wheeled into the operating room, put on a show to get the message to Mao that time has stopped for his usual game of Ping Pong and confirm Deng once and for all.

Just before Zhou was wheeled into the operating room, he called for Xiaoping and shouted for all to hear:” Comrade Xiaoping, your work over the years has shown that you are truly tougher than I am.”

According to a memoir by Deng Rong, Deng Xiaoping's daughter, when Zhou asked Deng whether he will ever “ change his attitude”. Deng's response was an “ unequivocal never”. Zhou's answer was also an uneqivocal - “I am glad”.

Final Words:

There is not doubt that Zhou was a self sacrificial man and Zhou is commonly acknowledged as a balance to Mao’s extremism both during the Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution. But Gao paints an ultimately damning portrait of a “YES” man.

What sort of machinations and compromises were necessary to linger in power while those around him were being swept away?  What about allowing his long time comrade Liu Shaoqi to die of untreated pneumonia lying on the floor of an unheated jail cell?

Perhaps in the end, the biggest question that remains is this:
What would have happened if Zhou had stood up to Mao or at least advised him differently? Would Mao have lasted? Or would Zhou have lasted to curb’s Mao excess?

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