Zhou Youguang

Return to the Motherland


As the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) swept south during 1949, the total victory of the Chinese Communist Party was assured. Yet despite propaganda success in its ‘base areas’ during the civil war, there was no mass mobilization of the Chinese people behind the party’s Marxist message. What occurred was the well-executed military defeat of a morally and financially bankrupt regime. While most Chinese were resigned to the passing of heaven’s mandate to a new dynasty, thousands of intellectuals and entrepreneurs took their expertise, capital, and dissent to Hong Kong and beyond, or joined the Nationalists on Taiwan. More remarkable were returning émigrés like banker Zhou Youguang, inspired by the hope of national renewal after decades of disunity and abuse by hostile powers.

Born in 1906 to an intellectual’s family in Jiangsu province, Zhou came of age, like the CCP, in Shanghai, a city of foreign concessions, élite high society, criminal underworld, and growing proletariat. The opening of Shanghai as a treaty port back in 1842, the spoils of the first opium war, had marked the start of China’s ‘century of shame’. Zhou was first attracted by communism at the missionary-run St. John’s University. In 1925, to protest against the May Thirtieth Incident, when British police killed student-worker demonstrators, he left to complete his finance degree at a more ‘patriotic’ Chinese institution, the newly established Guanghua University.

A career in banking led Zhou to New York in 1946, but China’s call brought him and his wife back to Shanghai soon after Liberation. When the PLA entered the city of sin, the culture clash was extreme — city-slickers enjoyed the tale of one soldier who encountered a Western-style toilet for the first time, guessed it was used for washing rice, and flushed his ration goodbye. The moderation of early policies ensured Zhou’s abilities were fully employed and won widespread cooperation among Shanghai’s capitalist classes. Their days, however, were numbered. The General Line for the Transition to Socialism from late 1953 signalled the Communist’s intent, and by 1956, the nationalization of private enterprise was complete.

Zhou’s interest in the Chinese language, which was spurred by his father, who had run a private language institute before 1949, lent him a second career. At university he had joined heated discussion among intellectuals about romanizing Chinese characters, an effort to narrow the gap between Chinese and the world’s mainstream languages. After his transfer to the China Language Reform Committee in 1955, Zhou became the chief inventor of the Pinyin system of romanization, using the Latin alphabet in transliterations of ideographs in use for four thousand years. Pinyin opened an ancient language to the computer age, while another major reform, the simplification of characters, had purists weeping but proved a boon to educators spreading literacy nationwide.

A number of returned scholars and scientists made great contributions to the new republic, notably Qian Xuesen, who was fundamental in the building China’s atomic bomb. The skills of many others were sadly wasted, as suspicion and ignorance curtailed their work, and often their freedom. In Beijing, Zhou served as a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), China’s top advisory body, until he was 85, bar Cultural Revolution disruption. Still writing books on language at the age of 94, Zhou shares his retirement with his wife of sixty-six years, 90 year-old Zhang Yunhe, an expert on kunju, the precursor to Peking opera.

Many people have asked why I would give up a promising career and comfortable life in America to return to China. It may be difficult to understand for today’s young people, rushing to get out of the country. Actually, it was the most natural thing to do at that time. The founding of the People’s Republic of China sent shock waves across the world, Asia in particular. Ever since the opium wars, China had been bullied and invaded by foreign powers. Now, for the first time, we Chinese stood up independently on our own feet. Many people round the world saw hope in communism. Many Chinese, seeing new hope in their homeland, came back, one after another, when the Chinese Communists took power.

One has to admire their ability in organizing underground work. From 1946, I was running the New York representative office of a private Shanghai bank, Xinhua, and studying at New York University at night. I also did some work for the American Irving Trust bank, and frequently travelled to Europe to deal with the Bank of England among others. Among many visitors to my Broadway home were Liu Zunqi and Yang Gang, outstanding journalists, and, unknown to me, both secret Party members. From an early stage, they were convinced the Communists would win because they enjoyed the support of the masses, and communism was the hope of mankind. I tended to agree. They advocated that patriotic Chinese must return to help build the new China. In fact, I needed little persuasion.

I was christened when young, but it was communism that attracted me after I grew up. St. John’s University in Shanghai was run by American missionaries, yet a large percentage of students were left-wing. The library stocked many Marxist books, translated into English, the working language of the university, and I read them with interest. One classmate even left for the Soviet Union before graduating. The Japanese invasion in 1937 pushed me closer to communism. The Japanese were imperialists, the most despised by the Communists, and our whole family suffered at their hands. In Chongqing, our little daughter died from appendicitis when we were in the countryside, escaping Japanese bombing. It was too late when we rushed her to hospital. Our son too nearly died from shrapnel.

I went through the [Anti-Japanese] war so I didn’t believe the myth that the Communists defeated the Japanese. They played a role, though not a decisive one, yet by comparison the Nationalists lacked the Communists‘ vitality, strength, and ability to mobilize people to work together with them. After the Japanese defeat, the Nationalist government’s unwise policies lost any remaining trust. They should have controlled inflation, not let it soar, while some greedy officials made fortunes from our national disaster by pocketing property as they reclaimed Japanese-controlled areas. Corruption grew worse and worse.

Resisting offers to join large US banks, I decided to leave America after learning the Communists had crossed the Yangtze and taken Nanjing, the former Nationalist capital. It was obvious to anyone who would win. At that time, I must say a fair number of progressive Americans were also sympathetic to the Communists. Though the authorities might not like it, communism was tolerated, and [Senator Joseph] McCarthy’s anti-communism began after I left. Later Chinese intellectuals had great trouble trying to return. Once I made up my mind, my wife and I moved quickly, flying to Hong Kong to await China’s liberation. On June 3, 1949, a week after Shanghai was liberated, we boarded a boat from Hong Kong.

When we landed, I really felt I was back home. My bank even sent people to pick us up. I was excited and eager to make a contribution to the new government. I thought my skill in finance would be useful in China’s construction, as the Communists had taken over a torn country. Returned scholars were generally treated very well, at least in the beginning. A committee was set up to look after us, and I was immediately made a senior manager at Xinhua. A friend on the committee arranged for me to teach at the economic research institute under Fudan University. I was very happy in the early days after my return, juggling various jobs and responsibilities. A year later, when the East China branch of the new People’s Bank was established, I also became senior adviser to the private enterprise department, an indication of official trust in me.

On top of that, I became a member of Shanghai’s political consultative council. Shanghai’s Mayor, Chen Yi, was a wonderful man, clear-headed, pragmatic, and open-minded, not the typical Party bureaucrat you usually meet. Every month he invited experts and celebrities to a symposium, and listened to our suggestions. He made me feel I had not taken the wrong path by returning. I think he appreciated two of my suggestions: given the vital task facing China was economic development, we should rely on economic not political methods to achieve it. Chen Yi nodded deeply. Secondly, I stressed the significance of industrial research. Ten leading professors and academics were organized to run the Weekly Economic Journal. Every weekend, we would write articles, discussing our views on issues related to the economy.

In those early days, policies were reasonable and the political atmosphere rather relaxed and tolerant. The government respected the private sector with little interference – at the People’s Bank we even granted loans to private enterprises. Liu Shaoqi had a good policy called ‘five types of economic co-existence’, permitting state-owned and private companies, joint-enterprises between the state and private sector, foreign owned companies and joint ventures.

At first, the government also interfered little in ordinary people’s lives. People were still allowed to wear fancy clothes, but more and more began to wear the simple blue jacket and trousers. I was used to wearing Western-style suits, but soon found I was too embarrassed to wear one. So I too adopted the blue ‘workers‘ suit’, except at formal occasions. There were so many PLA soldiers in the streets, but they were so well-behaved and disciplined that the only jokes concerned their country bumpkin image. They took some very necessary measures against the city’s social ills. One of the first was to wipe out the gangsters for which Shanghai was infamous. They closed all nightclubs with risqué sex shows or gambling, but most entertainment places stayed open. They also rounded up all the prostitutes, educated them, and arranged employment. Society was better controlled than in Nationalist times, and stricter control was not a bad thing, as long as the policies were right. Life instantly became safer and more orderly…