China Memoir:  Encounters with Premier Zhou Enlai


 By Roy Rowan




Zhou Enlai: An Erudite Revolutionary





Photo by Roy Rowan


Roy Rowan as United Nations Transportation officer in Henan Province of China, 1947.  Claude Lievsay is in passenger seat of their mud-spattered jeep.  Note bullet hole in lower left corner of windshield.



By Roy Rowan



My last two years of World War II were spent in New Guinea and the Philippines. Perhaps it was the proximity of those Pacific islands to the Chinese mainland that lured me there in early 1946. Mustering out of the Army as a 26-year-old major, I tried very hard to land a job as a foreign correspondent in Shanghai.  But too many experienced war correspondents were already vying for jobs covering the civil war between Mao Zedong’s Communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists.


Unable to land a reporter’s job, I signed on with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration UNRRA as it was called as a transportation specialist, hoping to write freelance articles in my spare time. Within a few months I found myself in Kaifeng, then capital of Henan Province on China’s Central Plain between the Yellow and Yangtze Rivers. There I was given 400 U.S. Army war surplus trucks and 700 Chinese drivers and mechanics. My assignment was to supply the war-devastated villages in that region with food, clothing, and farm tools.


Because the ancient mud-walled communities changed hands so often it was hard to tell which were occupied by the Communists and which by the Nationalists. The roads were a worse problem. Never intended for motor vehicles, they had been worn into existence by a 2,000-year procession of ox carts, mule carts, and wheelbarrows. To keep our trucks from being commandeered by either Mao’s or Chiang’s troops, another American and I would frequently escort our convoys across the bleak no-man’s land between the two armies.


One day in 1947 without warning our UNRRA headquarters in Kaifeng found itself playing host to Brigadier General Zhou Enlai, the man destined to become Communist China’s Premier. Mao, he reported, was infuriated by our failure to supply a fair percentage of the relief supplies to the Communist villages. After delivering an angry ultimatum he softened up and agreed to spend the night in our truck compound.


I was surprised during dinner how urbane and witty the man was. Lively dark eyes pierced out from under heavy eyebrows. When he smiled, which he did frequently, long vertical furrows creased his cheeks. A scraggly beard adorned his chin, though I’d heard he shaved it off from time to time to keep from being recognized by Chiang’s secret police, who had put an $80,000 price tag on his head.


At breakfast the next morning Zhou regaled us with stories about the early days of the civil war. He described the ordeal of the Communists’ legendary, six-thousand-mile Long March to the safe haven of Yanan in the mountainous northwest. The two-year-trek in 1933-4, he related, had taken the Red Army through the opium country of Guizhou, Sichuan, and Yunnan, where he said, “poppy fields bloomed pastel pink. Everyone smoked,” he confessed. “Even babies were put to sleep sucking on sugar cane covered with opium dust.”


It would be 25 years before I met Zhou again. In 1972 I became Hong Kong bureau chief for Time magazine. Although President Nixon’ s much-heralded meeting with Mao that year had supposedly opened the way for “journalistic exchanges” with the Peoples Republic, American reporters still weren’t welcome. Then in February, 1973, I learned that Ethiopian Airlines was planning an inaugural flight from Addis Ababa to Beijing,  to be led by Emperor Haile Selassie’s granddaughter, Her Imperial Highness Ida Desta. I had once interviewed the emperor. “No harm wiring him to see if I could hitch a ride to Beijing,” I decided. A few days later I was on my way.


The logistics proved more complicated than I expected. First I had to fly to Bombay, and pick up a connecting flight to Addis, where a special Chinese visa was issued, then backtrack to Bombay on the new Ethiopian Airline, which finally flew non-stop to Beijing or would have if bad weather hadn’t forced the plane to put down in Guangzhou. So after sixty-three hours and 1165 miles of flying I finally landed in China, exactly 111 miles from my starting point in Hong Kong.


Finally arriving in Beijing our entourage was invited to a reception in the Great Hall of the People. There we were welcomed by none other than my old acquaintance, Premier Zhou Enlai, filling in for the ailing Mao. It was said that “the suave premier could put a cosmopolitan face on Communism,” which he soon demonstrated. Starting with Princess Ida, Zhou moved from table to table, toasting and shaking hands with each guest.


Suddenly, there he was, the double-barreled boss of China’s domestic and foreign policy, extending his hand to me. “Your Excellency,” I heard myself say, “I have something for you.” Then I handed him a gift-wrapped photo album of pictures I had taken in 1947 while convoying UNRRA supplies to Communist-held villages in Henan. “Do you remember meeting me there?” I asked.


Zhou looked perplexed, reluctant to take my gift as if I were offering him some kind of cumshaw. His interpreter came to his rescue, politely accepting the package.


A minute later China’s deputy foreign minister rushed to our table and asked the meaning of my bad behavior, offering a gift to His Excellency. No breach of protocol, I assured him. My only purpose was the hope that the old photos of Henan might elicit an invitation to revisit the province. “That’s not possible,” snapped the deputy foreign minister. “You have to submit a written request to the Foreign Journalists’ Association.”


Every six months for the next eight years I dutifully did that, almost certain nothing would come of it. Then to my amazement in 1981 an invitation from Beijing arrived by mail. By that time I was a senior writer for Fortune based in New York. For the next month, with my wife Helen and a Chinese government “guide” (spy), I revisited and re-photographed the old villages. A government trained nurse followed in a car behind in case we got sick. The roads were now paved and the ancient protective mud walls around the towns torn down. Otherwise, everything looked the same. But creeping capitalism encouraged by Zhou Enlai, I discovered, was already making small inroads on the Communist way of life. And that was the story I wrote for Fortune.



Roy Rowan spent 35 years as a foreign correspondent, writer, and editor for Time, Life, and Fortune. He is the author of eight books, including Chasing the Dragon: A Veteran Journalist’s Firsthand Account of the Chinese Revolution, that has been optioned by Hollywood.





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