Three Chinese Leaders: Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and Deng Xiaoping

Mao Zedong

Mao Zedong (1893-1976) was one of the historic figures of the twentieth century. A founder of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party), he played a major role in the establishment of the Red Army and the development of a defensible base area in Jiangxi province during the late 1920s and early 1930s. He consolidated his rule over the Party in the years after the Long March and directed overall strategy during the Sino-Japanese War and the civil war. He formally assumed the post of Party Chairman in 1945. His reliance on the peasantry (a major departure from prevailing Soviet doctrine) and dependence on guerrilla warfare in the revolution were essential to the Communist triumph in China.

Following the establishment of the PRC (People's Republic of China) in 1949, Mao was responsible for many of the political initiatives that transformed the face of China. These included land reform, the collectivization of agriculture, and the spread of medical services. In particular, this leader of the revolution remained alert to what he saw to be new forms of oppression and sensitive to the interests of the oppressed. In 1958 he advocated a self-reliant "Great Leap Forward" campaign in rural development. The failure of the Leap led Mao to turn many responsibilities over to other leaders (Liu Shaoqi, Deng Xiaoping, etc.) and to withdraw from active decision making.

During the early 1960s, Mao continued his restless challenge of what he perceived as new forms of domination (in his words, "revisionism," or "capitalist restoration"). In foreign policy he led China's divorce from the Soviet Union. Domestically, he became increasingly wary of his subordinates' approach to development, fearing that it was fostering deep social and political inequalities. When Liu, Deng, and others seemed to be ignoring his call to "never forget class struggle," Mao in 1966 initiated the "Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution," exploiting discontent among some students (the "Red Guards") and others. The Cultural Revolution was successful in removing many who opposed his policies but led to serious disorder, forcing Mao to call in the military to restore order in 1967.

In 1969 Mao designated Defense Minister Lin Biao, a Cultural Revolution ally, as his heir apparent. But Mao came to have doubts about Lin and soon challenged him politically. One of the issues of debate was the opening to the United States, advocated by Mao and Zhou Enlai as a counter to the Soviet Union. In 1971 Lin was killed in a plane crash while fleeing China after an alleged assassination attempt on Mao.

Until his death, a failing Mao refereed a struggle between those who benefited from the Cultural Revolution and defended its policies, and rehabilitated veterans who believed that the Cultural Revolution had done China serious harm. It seemed for a while that the veterans, led by Deng Xiaoping, had won the day. But the radicals, either by manipulating Mao or by appealing to his basic instincts, regained momentum after Zhou Enlai's death in January 1976. Mao chose the more centrist Hua Guofeng to carry on his vision. Four weeks after Mao's death, Hua led the arrest of major radical figures, four of whom — Zhang Chunqiao, Jiang Qing, Wang Hongwen, and Yao Wenyuan — were dubbed a "gang."

The post-Mao era has seen a reversal of much that Mao stood for and the eclipse of many individuals, living and dead, that he stood behind. His leadership, especially the Cultural Revolution initiative, has been hotly debated. In June 1981 the Party Central Committee approved a resolution that criticized Mao's rule after 1958, but affirmed his place as a great leader and ideologist of the Chinese Communist revolution.

From Focus on Asian Studies, Vol. IV, No. 1 (New York: The Asia Society, 1984). © 1984 The Asia Society. Reprinted with permission.

Zhou Enlai

Zhou Enlai (1898-1976) was, for decades, one of the most prominent and respected leaders of the Communist movement. Born into an upper-class family, he was drawn into the vortex of Chinese politics during the May Fourth Movement. In 1920 he traveled to Europe on a work-study program in which he met a number of future CCP leaders. He joined the Party in 1922 and returned to China in 1924, becoming the political commissar of the Whampoa Military Academy in Canton during the first united front with the Nationalists. He was in charge of labor union activity in Shanghai when Chiang Kaishek attacked the CCP in April 1927 and helped to plan the Nanchang Uprising against the Nationalists in August — the event now celebrated as the founding of the CCP's Red Army.

But Zhou was always most prominent during periods in which the CCP reached out to otherwise hostile political forces. He played an important role in securing Chiang Kaishek's release during the Xian (Sian) Incident of December 1936. Once the Nationalists and CCP had formed a second united front to oppose Japanese imperialism, it was Zhou who headed the CCP liaison team. Similarly, Zhou represented the CCP in negotiations with the Nationalists during the mediation effort of U.S. General George Marshall.

After the founding of the People's Republic in 1949, Zhou became premier of the Government Affairs (later State) Council and foreign minister. In 1955 he acted as China's bridge to the nonaligned world at the Bandung Conference, and in the same year helped engineer initial contacts with the U.S. He passed the foreign minister portfolio to Chen Yi in 1958 but continued to play an active role in foreign policy.

Zhou supported Mao Zedong in the latter's Cultural Revolution attack on the entrenched Party bureaucracy, and subsequently played a critical role in rebuilding political institutions and mediating numerous political quarrels. With the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia, Zhou advocated an opening to Japan and the West to counter the Russian threat. Zhou welcomed President Nixon to China in February 1972, and signed the historic Shanghai Communiqué for the PRC. That same year Zhou was diagnosed as having cancer, and he began shedding some of his responsibilities, especially to Deng Xiaoping who was rehabilitated in April 1973. Zhou was also a strong advocate of modernization, particularly at the Fourth National People's Congress in January 1975. Amid radical attacks on him during the Anti-Confucius Campaign, Zhou entered the hospital during 1974 and died on January 8, 1976.

Zhou continued to affect Chinese politics even after his death. In April 1976, the removal of memorial wreaths placed in Tiananmen Square in Zhou's honor sparked riots that led to the second ousting of Deng Xiaoping. With the purge of the "Gang of Four" in October 1976, his policy of "four modernizations" received the full endorsement of the new leadership. His selected works were published in December 1980, and three years later a memorial room for him was established in Mao's mausoleum.

From Focus on Asian Studies, Vol. IV, No. 1 (New York: The Asia Society, 1984). © 1984 The Asia Society. Reprinted with permission.

Deng Xiaoping

Born in 1904, Deng Xiaoping (d. 1997) was one of the first generation of Chinese Communist Party leaders. He held prominent positions in the government in the 1950s and 1960s, but he was removed from office and imprisoned during the years of the Cultural Revolution, 1966-76. His family was persecuted. Deng Xiaoping reemerged as China's paramount leader shortly after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976.

Deng Xiaoping's goal in 1976 was to set China back on the course of economic development that had been badly interrupted during the final years of Mao's leadership. Deng's rallying cry became the "Four Modernizations," articulated by Zhou Enlai in 1975, which entailed the development of industry, agriculture, defense, and science and technology. He set the course of reform by dismantling the communes set up under Mao and replaced them with the Household Responsibility System (HRS), within which each household must be held accountable to the state for only what it agrees to produce, and is free to keep surplus output for private use. In addition to this program, which was an incentive for households to produce more, Deng encouraged farmers to engage in private entrepreneurship and sideline businesses in order to supplement their incomes.

Deng Xiaoping said that "practice is the sole criterion of truth," and believed that only by experimenting with alternative forms of production and entrepreneurial activity would China find the best path for economic development. Thus began China's experiments with capitalist methods of production. As Deng said, "it does not matter if a cat is black or white so long as it catches the mouse;" it no longer matters if an economic policy is capitalist or socialist, in other words, as long as it results in economic growth.

Deng also wanted to set up an arrangement whereby leadership succession would take place according to legal guidelines rather than personality struggles. In general, he hoped to establish a social and political order governed by "rule by law, not by man." Even after he had retired from his formal positions, Deng encouraged his aging comrades to follow this example. Deng's commitment to replacing the aging leaders suffered a setback, however. When faced with demands for political reforms by students and citizens throughout China in 1989, Deng ordered the military to move in and clear Tiananmen Square, where they were demonstrating for greater freedom of speech and press, and greater accountability on the party of government. Pro-reform leaders like Zhao Ziyang were removed from office and many of the retired leaders, many of whom did not support Zhao's reform effort, returned to power after June 4, 1989.

Economically, China has entered a very difficult period characterized by unemployment and general uncertainty. Also unclear is how history will view the role and achievements of Deng Xiaoping in light of the events at Tiananmen Square.

— By Catherine H. Keyser