' Skip To Content
Nixon's China Game | Article

Chou En-Lai


Kissinger considered Chou En-lai "one of the two or three most impressive men I have ever met." Nixon wrote of his "brilliance and dynamism." Premier Chou En-lai was Communist China's first and longest-serving leader. As the Communist representative in Chungking, the Chinese capital during World War II, he became familiar with many American officials and journalists. During his lengthy political career, Chou won many admirers at home and abroad with his diplomatic prowess and charismatic personality. Yet, as his critics note, he was not beyond using extreme methods to advance the Chinese Communist cause and was often regarded as devious.

Born into a family of lower gentry on March 5, 1898, Chou was educated in China, Japan, and Europe, and became one of the earliest members of the Chinese Communist party (CCP). Chou threw himself into the first wave of revolutionary organizing with great zeal, distinguishing himself through his work with students, workers, intellectuals and the military, and becoming a senior party leader by age 26. A skilled negotiator, Chou persuaded Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek to join forces against Japan in 1936, and represented the Communist party in Chiang’s government during the United Front period. An honest and effective leader, he gained domestic and international support for the CCP through his persuasiveness and personal charm. 

With the founding of the People's Republic of China in October 1949, Chou became its premier, in charge of state bureaucracy, and also served as foreign minister until 1958. Throughout his tenure, Chou developed his reputation as a peacemaker at home and abroad, able to reach the widest possible agreement among divergent parties and positions. During the years of political chaos brought on by Mao's domestic policies, Chou held the party together as the only major leader respected by the many warring Communist factions. Throughout the Cultural Revolution, Chou backed Mao's radical line but kept Mao’s excesses in check, personally intervening to protect individuals and important historical sites from Red Guard violence.

While he insisted that "We owe all our achievement to Chairman Mao's brilliant leadership," there is no doubt that Chou was a driving force behind China's dramatic rapprochement with the United States in the 1970s. In his first secret meetings with Henry Kissinger in 1971, Chou greatly impressed the American diplomat with his ability to soften "the edges of ideological hostility by an insinuating ease of manner and a seemingly effortless skill to penetrate to the heart of the matter."

Chou came under bitter political attack from his party's extreme left wing in the last years of his life. After Chou's death from cancer in 1976, unprecedented popular demonstrations were held in Tiananmen Square by mourners prevented by anti-Chou leaders then in power from memorializing him. Chou is remembered today as one of China's most respected and best loved leaders, renowned for his brilliant diplomacy, as well as his personal humility and simple life-style. 

Support Provided by: Learn More