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|Chou Enlai (Zhou Enlai)
[jO in lI'] the first Premier of the People's Republic of China
Chou Enlai was born in Huaian, Kiangsu Province, into a landed family. Both of his parents died while he was a child, and he was sent to live with an uncle in Mukden, where he received a traditional primary education. In 1917 he went to Japan to continue his education, and it was there that he was introduced to Marxism.
In 1919 Chou returned to China to join student protests at Tientsin. He enrolled at Nank'ai University, where he became editor of a radical student newspaper. In 1920 he was arrested with other students after a demonstration and imprisoned for four months. After his release from prison, Chou went to France on a work-study program. There he became an active member of the Chinese Socialist Youth Corps, and helped found its Berlin branch in 1922. That same year he was elected to the executive committee of the European branch of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). He also joined Sun Yat-sen's Kuomintang (KMT) and became a member of the executive committee of its European headquarters.
Work with the Kuomintang
Returning to China in late 1924, Chou began working at the joint CCP-KMT headquarters in Canton. He subsequently became deputy director of the political department of the Whampoa Military Academy, political commissar to the 1st Division of the 1st Army of the KMT, and then special commissioner of East River District of Kwangtung Province. He lost the last two posts when Chiang Kai-shek seized control of the KMT in March 1926.
During the Northern Expedition of 1926, Chou worked to organize a labor revolt in Shanghai, then directed the general strike that captured that city just ahead of Chiang's troops. He subsequently escaped the terror instituted by Chiang and fled to Wuhan, where the official leadership of the KMT still supported the CCP-KMT alliance.
Work with the Communist Party
At the Fifth National Congress of the Communist Party in April 1926, Chou was elected to the Central Committee and the Politburo and became head of the Military Committee. When the KMT at Wuhan broke with the CCP in 1927, Chou fled again. He organized and led the unsuccessful uprising in Nanchang on August 1, 1927, and quickly emerged as one of the top CCP leaders, engaging simultaneously in armed struggle, underground political work, and mobilization of mass support. In 1929 he created the Red Guards, a secret police force that tried to protect the party leadership in Shanghai. By 1931 he had become a close ally of Mao Zedong, and he served as a military officer on the Long March to Yenan in 1934. In Yenan, he began to emerge as a major negotiator for the Communist Party.
During the Sino-Japanese War, Chou was largely involved in negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek and the Communists over common anti-Japanese issues. From November 1944, he was involved in negotiations between the United States, the Nationalists, and the Communists. In October 1949, he became the first Premier and Foreign Minister of the People's Republic of China.
Premier of the People's Republic of China, 1949-
As China's chief administrator, Chou attempted to restore order after the long civil war and adopted an ambitious economic reconstruction program. As China's chief diplomat, he improved China's international position at such meetings as the 1954 Geneva Conference on Indochina and the 1955 Asian-African Conference at Bandung, Indonesia.
In 1958, Mao Zedong initiated the Great Leap Forward, a program aimed at increasing China's production levels in industry and agriculture. As a popular and practical administrator, Zhou was able to maintain his position despite the failure of Mao's program. During the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), Zhou did much to prevent the radicals from totally disrupting the party apparatus and government bureaucracy.
Known as an able diplomat, Zhou was largely responsible for the re-establishment of contacts with the West in the early 1970's. In 1972 he signed the Shanghai Communiqué with U.S. President Richard Nixon -- a step that eventually led to close ties between the two countries and, in 1979, to formal diplomatic relations. Diplomatic relations were also established with Japan.
Hospitalized for bladder cancer in 1974, Zhou handed many of his responsibilities over to his First Deputy Premier, Deng Xiaoping. He died on the morning of January 8, 1976.
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This page was last updated on April 13, 2017.