A bit too much myth about Zhou Enlai


Eldest Son: Zhou Enlai and the Making of Modern China, 1898-1976
By Han Suyin
Jonathon Cape, 1994. 483 pp., $39.95 (hb)
Reviewed by Phil Shannon

For better or, mostly, worse, the Chinese Revolution has exerted a magical spell over many socialists. Han Suyin's biography of one of the revolution's most prominent figures, Zhou Enlai, recaptures the revolution's tremendous liberatory promise but is also captive to its worst anti-socialist features, both aspects which are reflected in Zhou himself.

Han Suyin movingly depicts the gigantic sweep of a revolution which sprouted from the "massive misery" of a China subjected to "invasion, pillage and destruction" from the imperialism of England in the 1840s to Japan in the 1930s, in brutal tandem with Chinese landlords and warlords. Zhou came to political awakening in a land where eight-year-old children worked 14 hours a day, where warlords levied taxes of all kinds and famine, flood and epidemics regularly killed a million people a year.

Zhou, from the poor urban intelligentsia, entered the tumult of protest against these conditions. He joined the Communist Party of China (CPC) in 1922, a party which was to fritter away its promise under the "guidance" of a Soviet Communist Party steadily rotting away from Stalinism and sacrificing international revolution for the security of the national state and its bureaucracy.

The CPC's wild policy lurches from "right" to "left", dictated by Moscow, destroyed the fertile ground for a working-class revolution during the '20s. The party was hamstrung by an alliance with the bourgeois nationalist and anti-socialist Guomindang (GMD). While Trotsky was arguing for a break with the GMD, Zhou "would not go against the Party" and clung to the alliance with the capitalist party which was publicly beheading Communists, burying left-wing writers alive and generally massacring the people.

Finally, in an act of desperate self-preservation, the CPC in 1934 embarked on the Long March to remote Yenan province. This was an heroic and tragic feat of human endurance, told with all of Han Suyin's gift for storytelling — 96,000 of the 100,000 marchers, at times reduced to eating "leather-belt soup", failed to make it.

Most tragic, however, was the political fallout as the CPC marched forever away from the Marxist staple of proletarian-led revolution towards a peasant army (the PLA) "liberating the people" — not for genuine socialism under workers' democracy but for the CPC aim of economic modernisation and nation-building.

This the CPC and PLA did in 1949. There were positive reforms from this revolution which ousted the Guomindang — Beijing's sewers were overhauled, coal mines and railways reopened, dykes built for flood control, slums razed and brick housing built, immunisation and literacy programs launched, inflation (which had reached ten million per cent per month under the GMD) checked. China's 90 million opium addicts were cured, and forced marriages and child marriages were banned.

As good as this was, however, it was not socialism. The "purpose of the revolution", said Zhou, "was to liberate productive forces". Workers and peasants were not to liberate themselves from their class bondage. Zhou was a technocrat, a moderniser; "he was a born administrator".

In Han Suyin's lengthy biography, there is little to be found of Zhou the socialist or advocate of working-class democracy. He shared the dominant CPC view that "the Party was the Revolution". "It is quite obvious", says Han Suyin, "that he was not interested in freedom for its own sake".

When he did support "free discussion" during the Hundred Flowers Campaign ("Let a hundred flowers bloom, let a hundred schools of thought contend"), this was restricted solely to freeing the scientific intelligentsia from party dogma (the newly victorious CPC had many peasant members who believed the Earth was flat and that microscopes were tools of imperialist oppression) so that China's national economic development could proceed more efficiently. So Zhou supported China's nuclear bomb and opposed "immediate socialism" in any country in South-East Asia, if this was to China's national advantage.

Zhou was "for order". He accepted "the Party's ultimate authority". When an inner party bureaucratic squabble on the best strategy for economic nationalism erupted in the Cultural Revolution in the late '60s, Zhou supported Mao's call for the PLA to restore order in Shanghai when the workers there took Mao's self-serving dictum, "It is right to rebel", too much to heart and overthrew the CPC municipal government.

Zhou backed Mao's plea for workers "to confine their revolutionary ardour to their machines and production". This was Zhou's technocratic and authoritarian view, which had increasingly come to dominate his political career — party control must be absolute because "the masses were not wise enough" to control their own or their country's destiny.

With appropriate political logic, Deng Xiaoping, the butcher of Tienanmen Square in 1989, was chosen by Zhou to be his successor. Their only difference was one of personality — Zhou was a "warm and humane" person, Deng had the people finesse of a sledge-hammer. Han Suyin laments that, if Zhou had been alive in 1989, "there would not have been such bad handling of the youth demonstrations". If, however, Zhou's highly practised diplomatic tongue had proved ineffective, would the tanks have been far away? He supported the crushing of the Hungarian uprising by Soviet tanks in 1956.

Han Suyin's political trouble throughout is to take Zhou's personal attributes — "a being of flawless integrity, immune to corruption, unsparing of himself", a friendly, personable bloke easy to like — and to read these personal virtues into his politics and the politics of the CPC, concluding that the CPC was "dedicated to the people's welfare". It wasn't. Tienanmen Square showed that.

Han Suyin deserves to be best known for her novels about ordinary people. Her humanitarianism, her psychological acuity, her siding with people in revolt, her artistry, make her an inspiring writer of fiction. Unfortunately, there is rather too much historical and political fiction in her portrait of the Chinese Revolution and of Zhou Enlai, the "warm and humane" Stalinist.

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