Zhou Enlai, premier of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) since 1949, dies of cancer at age 77. Zhou was second to Mao Zedong, the leader of the revolution that brought a communist regime to China, in terms of importance in the PRC. Beyond his significance as a leader of communist China, Zhou was instrumental in the negotiations that resulted in the U.S. recognition of the PRC in 1979.
Zhou was born in 1898, and he was heavily involved in the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by the 1920s. He rose quickly through the party ranks and became one of Mao Zedong’s most trusted advisors, particularly valued for his skill at negotiations and diplomacy. These skills were crucial during the 1930s, when the CCP found it necessary to collaborate with its enemy, the Chinese Nationalists, to oppose Japanese aggression. In 1949, the CCP was victorious in its civil war against the Nationalists and Zhou was appointed premier and foreign minister of the new government.
During the 1950s, he represented China at various diplomatic gatherings, including the 1954 Geneva Conference and the 1955 Asian-African Conference in Bandung. He was also a stabilizing force inside China during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution and its resultant political tensions.
In the early 1970s, Zhou embarked on a program to rebuild relations with the United States, which had refused to recognize the Chinese communist government. In 1972, he and President Richard Nixon shocked the world by meeting and agreeing to work for closer political and economic relations between the two nations. These talks eventually did bear fruit in 1979, when the United States formally recognized the PRC.