Editors Note: We're blogging through We Didn't Start the Fire by Billy Joel.
Chou En-lai, or Zhou Enlai, was a Chinese Communist Premier. After living with his uncle to receive his childhood education, he became active with the many university student demonstrations, and ended up being arrested and jailed for six months due to it. He left for a work-study arrangement in France in 1920. While in France, Zhou became a Communist believer. He returned to China in time to take part in the national revolution. After the Nationalist party took over (with help from the Communist Party of Russia), Zhou started working his way up through the ranks, eventually taking over the Communist’s Chinese military department.
Zhou was almost killed in 1927 when the Nationalist leader decided to eliminate his former Communist allies. The Communists took loss after loss as they attempted to take the country back. Once the Nationalist leader was arrested by the military, however, Zhou was able to temporarily halt to war between the two parties. After a short unification against Japan, the two parties started fighting all over again, and the Communists took over.
Zhou was instantly given the role of Premier. His skill as a diplomat was widely known. He negotiated a treaty between the Soviets and the Chinese in 1950, and, five years later, promised Chinese support to any Asian countries not aligned with any particular government. He met with President Nixon in 1972, and negotiated a trade agreement between the countries. Zhou also helped increase Chinese production of materials.
However, Zhou’s influence in the government had begun to decrease in the 1960s. Chairman Mao Zedong had essentially taken leadership, and Zhou’s opinions weren’t valued as highly. Mao implemented a Cultural Revolution, which asked young Chinese people to destroy old buildings and art, as well as attack anyone who disagreed with the current government system. Anyone in the government who disagreed with him was removed and humiliated. Zhou was forced to agree with it. Zhou was the subject of political propaganda which suggested people use Zhou as the example for a political loser.
Zhou was diagnosed with bladder cancer in 1972, but Mao decided to not let Zhou get treatment - or even know about the diagnosis. By the time Mao relented, it was too late. The cancer had spread. Zhou Enlai died on January 8, 1976.
After Zhou’s death, Mao all but ignored it. He didn’t attend Zhou’s funeral, he didn’t issue any statements about it, and he even forbade mourning in the government. The people of China, however, still mourned his loss. After the one mourning ceremony, the government prohibited any other displays of grief. Any public memorials or posters were destroyed.
Finally, on April 4, 1976, a traditional day of remembering ancestors in China, thousands of Chinese gathered around a monument and began laying poems, wreaths, flowers, and other items to commemorate Zhou. The next morning, the crowd found everything had been removed. A riot began. Police cars were burned and government building were forcibly entered. Over 380 people were arrested. The government lost its popularity. Finally, after the leadership was ousted in 1980, the new government released all the arrestees from the riot.