Who Tells the Stories of Chinese Leaders? On Two New Biographies

By Lucy HornbyMay 8, 2024

Who Tells the Stories of Chinese Leaders? On Two New Biographies

Zhou Enlai: A Life by Chen Jian
“Avec toi au pouvoir, je suis tranquille”: Hua Guofeng (1921–2008) by Stéphane Malsagne

AROUND THE TIME Xi Jinping took power in 2012, foreign diplomats and journalists were assured by their Chinese contacts that he would be “a reformer.” Some of these contacts stressed that Xi’s father (Xi Zhongxun) was, after all, a liberalizer.

Xi Jinping quickly showed himself to be autocratic to the core. But even as that became clear, many in China and abroad found a way to remain resolutely optimistic. “He’s consolidating power in order to reform,” the new mantra went. This suggested that all that was needed was to wait a few years. The mantra lost its luster as a few years became a decade and there were still no signs of significant reformist tendencies.

What was going on? “We didn’t know” who Xi really was, a representative of Deng Xiaoping’s family interests once insisted to me, during an interview granted mostly to express umbrage at Xi’s perceived downgrading of Deng’s reputation.

Was Xi so dissimulating, such a master of “stealth, speed and guile” (as The New York Times put it in a 2018 headline), that he successfully fooled a small army of people into carrying water for him and spreading his illusion to the outside world? Were these insiders so vague about their own political system that they believed his promises? So hopeful that things might change that they were willing to grasp at Xi’s flimsy straw?

There’s another, more cynical possibility: the political factions that supported Xi deliberately trotted out a narrative that lowered everyone’s guard and smoothed his rise. Call them the Xi whisperers. Their narrative was eagerly picked up by foreign journalists and China watchers, who needed a simple label to explain an unknown new figure.

In China, the networks that coalesce around a powerful individual include a loose coterie of political advisors, writers, and other influencers. They might be journalists, editors, academics, or professional historians. Their work continues long after the factional leader is dead, because his reputation is vital to the interests of his family and to his former protégés.

Being a loyal factotum involves signing up to a narrative that puts the patron in the best light, and then relentlessly sticking to it. Sometimes the underlying interests are revealed (some authors of Chinese biographies are straightforward about their commissions), but mostly they aren’t (after his purge, disgraced politician Bo Xilai was accused of gifting valuable apartments to one of his promoters). The narratives they spin form an invisible web, a plasma that orders China’s political structure.

For historians outside China, the ubiquity of these narratives makes writing about Chinese politics an exercise in clawing at cobwebs.

Two recent books on Chinese political leaders—this month’s Zhou Enlai, A Life by Chen Jian and “Avec toi au pouvoir, je suis tranquille”: Hua Guofeng (1921–2008) by Stéphane Malsagne (in French only), from 2022—have had to confront this problem directly. (The phrase in the second book’s title is a much-quoted line, perhaps apocryphal, in which a dying Chairman Mao expressed a sense of being able to go to meet Marx, feeling at ease knowing that Hua would succeed him.)

The reputations of both Zhou and Hua have been heavily shaped by factional narratives. Zhou Enlai, one of the most influential people of the 20th century, is still exalted in China. By contrast, Mao Zedong’s successor, Hua Guofeng, has been almost completely erased from official history, ever since he was sidelined by Deng Xiaoping, the “architect” of China’s reform era.

Before the Communist victory in 1949, Zhou was centrally involved in most of the important developments of the Chinese Revolution. He occupied the heart of power for the first 27 years of the People’s Republic of China. He died in office in 1976, just months before Mao did, leaving a devoted and prolific coterie of followers who have perpetuated the legend of his virtue to the present day.

If there is a patron saint in Chinese politics, it is Zhou. His appeal endures because the Party needs a hero. In the reform era, Chinese historians have chipped away at the infallibility of Mao Zedong, the supreme leader of the revolutionary period. They’ve dissected the “errors” of the Cultural Revolution and the Anti-Rightist Movement, periods when many intellectuals suffered greatly. A few braver souls have tackled the Great Leap Forward, the land reform campaigns, and the obscure but bloody purges of the Party’s infancy. In the process, they’ve revealed Mao’s complexity, idealism, and hubris. Zhou’s reputation, on the other hand, has remained mostly unchallenged.

Unlike Mao, his protégés survived as formidable political actors well into the reform era. Zhou was survived by his wife, Deng Yingchao, who, like him, joined the Party early and was the best connected woman in Communist China. She insisted that the Party destroy incriminating criticisms of her husband and remained an active power broker until her own death in 1992. By that point, the couple’s adopted son Li Peng was premier; members of Zhou’s extended biological and adoptive families played influential political and cultural roles for decades after his death.

There’s an enormous amount of material regarding Zhou, including a mountain of admiring accounts by his former protégés. But nearly all of it spins or downplays his less palatable attributes. This proved to be the main challenge for eminent Cold War scholar Chen Jian.

Where Chen, who is best known for work in Cold War history, is on familiar ground of post-1949 geopolitics, his biography is enlightening and moves along briskly. Premier Zhou almost single-handedly put the new People’s Republic of China on the diplomatic map, and Chen describes his initiatives with clarity and detail. He is clear-eyed about the personal tensions between Zhou and Mao, who, Chen relates, systematically undermined the premier whenever he scored an international success. But Chen was not able to avoid the sticky web of the partisan narrative around Saint Zhou Enlai.

Zhou, a talented student supported by a well-connected uncle, first encountered socialism while in Japan (where he flunked his scholarship tests). The book’s coverage of Zhou’s family context is new, since most PRC hagiographies focus on his genteelly impoverished mother and aunt. But I wished for more insights into how Zhou’s class background shaped his life, from his successes as a global diplomat to his maneuverings within the Communist Party.

Zhou came into his own during the intellectual excitement of 1919’s May Fourth Movement, Chen writes, and in its wake heard communism’s siren song. But the biography stops short of exploring his seduction by the Soviet Union. Was Zhou, as it seems, an important conduit of Moscow’s influence into China? Did his views on communist orthodoxy ever change? Chen doesn’t say. He only hints at Zhou’s hunger for power and downplays his laser focus on the political and financial resources that make power possible.

The enigma at the heart of Zhou’s life is his long and shifting relationship to Mao. These are tough shoals to navigate—the early history of the Party is convoluted, to say the least, and Mao and Zhou teetered between alliance and rivalry for most of their adult lives. Chen outlines their Byzantine early conflicts and acknowledges tensions during the early years of the PRC, but he skips over a lot of the personal relationships between Zhou and his fellow revolutionaries (to be fair, this might have required including a dense thicket of unfamiliar detail). He repeats the pro-Zhou narrative that the premier was a reluctant and conflicted enabler of the Cultural Revolution, essentially absolving him of responsibility for that dark decade.

A more convincing interpretation would be that Zhou allied closely with Mao and his wife to take down the chairman’s heir apparent, technocrat Liu Shaoqi, ruthlessly betraying loyal comrades and flirting with civil war in the process. Until Mao finally turned against him in 1973–74, Zhou was more perpetrator than victim. Unfortunately, that’s a step too far for this biography.

Ultimately, Chen is too cautious. By sticking closely to the documents that he chose to use, he pushes the envelope rather than reorienting the picture completely. The darker, more contradictory elements of his subject’s life aren’t fully explored. Zhou comes through as an anxious micromanager, stripped of both his ruthlessness and his fabled disarming charm.

Stéphane Malsagne has the opposite problem with Hua Guofeng. Hua managed to rid China of Mao’s most radical followers (especially the “Gang of Four”), before being shouldered aside by Deng Xiaoping. While official PRC history turns Zhou into a saint, it nearly entirely erases Hua. At best, he is portrayed as an incompetent, unimaginatively conservative nonentity.

Not so, argues Malsagne, a French historian of Asia and the Middle East. Hua was a firm believer in Stalinist agricultural practices, it’s true, but he was also a political and economic pragmatist, who saw eye to eye with Deng on many matters of policy. Hua’s misfortune was that he had too few followers of his own. He was forced to play the weak hand of Mao’s legacy against the far better connected and more experienced Deng faction.

When it comes to restoring an ousted leader’s reputation, factional narratives provide a fascinating corrective to official party history. The masses of personal memoirs that have been published in Chinese since the 1990s include a few voices still sympathetic to Hua. Moreover, Xi’s recent interest in dethroning Deng, so that he and Mao stand out as the sole truly great post-1949 leaders, has allowed Chinese historians to revisit Hua’s administration. Malsagne makes extensive use of their work.

“The successor to Mao is almost unknown, overseas as well as in his own country,” Malsagne begins. To resurrect his subject, he takes on the opaque processes of Chinese policymaking. The issue is that initiatives bounce around many stakeholders before they are announced, speeches are vetted by committee, and even very senior leaders feel compelled to vocally support a “Party line” that they may or may not agree with. This makes it hard to pin down who, exactly, is responsible for what.

This was especially a problem in the 1970s, when Hua and Deng effectively co-led the Party. It is also a challenge today, when every diktat is gilded with Xi Jinping Thought, making it hard to know who is actually behind a given policy. For decades, Deng’s partisans have used this confusing collective leadership to claim credit for the successes of the post-Mao period and blame any failures on Hua. Malsagne tries to rebalance the accounts, but he has to rely on Hua’s official speeches to do so, which slows down his story.

The length and complexity of Zhou’s half century of influence, versus 10 years for Hua, made Chen’s task harder than Malsagne’s. But in the end, the narrative around Zhou proved harder to break through. Hua emerges as a more human, minor yet consequential figure who did his best to play a poor hand.

Acknowledging Hua’s official obscurity, as well as his attempt while in power to cultivate a cult of personality, allows Malsagne to cut through these narratives. Chen, by contrast, cuts his biography abruptly at Zhou’s death. More attention to the ways that Zhou’s legacy was polished and evolved might have helped define the man within the myth.

As Chen and Malsagne have shown, it takes knowledge, skepticism, and an extreme attention to detail to penetrate the factional narratives at play in China. A well-placed narrative is easier to understand but often misleading.

Which brings us back to Xi Jinping. His father was a significant political figure (especially in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’80s) but never at the very apex of the power pyramid. As Xi Jinping rose in the political system, there was a concerted effort to recast Xi Zhongxun in ways that would reflect well on his son, presenting him as the true architect of the reforms rather than one of the main enablers of them. Outsiders, naively, took the bait. But the myth of the father turned out to be a poor guide to predicting Xi Jinping’s behavior after he took power.

The son is a leader who skillfully plays opaque factional interests, a man who spent a lot of time crafting his own narrative in support of his ambitions. We, living in a world influenced by Xi Jinping, are an unwitting part of his audience.

History in China is often skillfully spun. As China assumes a greater international role, it pays to be alert to that effect.

LARB Contributor

Lucy Hornby reported from China for 15 years, writing for Reuters and the Financial Times. She is currently a senior associate with the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).


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