Henry Kissinger once noted that in his sixty years of public life, he had encountered no more a compelling figure than Zhou Enlai (1898–1976), a Chinese Communist Party leader, who loyally tied his fate to Mao Zedong even during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution. In his genius for political survival, Zhou has, on the one hand, garnered praise for his charm, experience as a negotiator and administrator, and for his humanity in curbing the violent excesses of Mao’s policies. On the other, he has been criticized for being a willing implementer of Mao’s regime, and that perhaps without his help, the state might have collapsed.
This paper explores Zhou Enlai’s leadership efforts in the Sino-Japanese War, Great Leap Forward, and Cultural Revolution to critically analyze the various ways Zhou attempted to justify and legitimate his decisions through strategically drawing on Confucian, Communist, and Maoist ideas. Ultimately, the paper seeks to highlight an understudied dimension of leadership--the peculiar conditions and tradeoffs subordinate leaders must make and how they justify their decisions.