140. Briefing Memorandum From the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs (Habib) to Secretary of State Kissinger1

Implications of Chou En-lai’s Death2

As I depart for Hawaii, I would leave you with EA’s thoughts on the policy implications of Chou En-lai’s death. I understand that INR is working on a more detailed analysis.

The broad consensus is that the succession to Chou has been carefully prepared, that Teng Hsiao-p’ing is the odds-on favorite to move up to the premiership, and that PRC leaders will make determined efforts to project an image of continuity and stability in the wake of Chou’s death. We agree this is the most likely outlook for the immediate future.

If the scenario in fact develops in this fashion, we have little reason to reassess our current expectations and policy assumptions at this time, particularly regarding PRC relations with the U.S. and the USSR.

But you should at least have in mind some of the imponderables that could alter this perspective.

  • Chou’s death is qualitatively different in its impact on the Chinese political process from the passing of other party elders before him. Even though the decision was probably made some time ago for Teng to succeed Chou as premier, and the Chinese body politic has been conditioned for this eventuality, the steps necessary to formalize this process—e.g. the holding of a party plenum and the convening of a National People’s Congress—entail risks and uncertainties for Teng, with Chou no longer around to work out the necessary compromises with his unique prestige and skills.
  • —If Teng becomes premier, he probably will not remain as PLA Chief of Staff. Chou is also the second Vice Chairman of the party and the third member of the powerful Standing Committee of the Politburo to die in less than a year. An effort to strike a new balance in the party and the army at the same time that Teng is raised to the premiership will be tricky. One question is what roles are given to Chang Chun-ch’iao. Another major question is whether Wang Hung-wen (a most [Page 912] unlikely successor to Mao) will remain as the titular number two to Mao in the party. All of these moves must be made in the context of the succession to Mao.
  • Teng, with the evident backing of Mao and Chou, has been moving cautiously but steadily to tidy up the political mess left by the Cultural Revolution, to restore the party and government apparatus to a position of leadership, and to reduce the political role of the military. But this process is still incomplete. The recurrent domestic campaigns suggest that there remain many troublesome loose ends—that impasses and modi vivendi rather than solutions have been reached in many areas—even though the overall trend has clearly been in the direction of a return to rationality and viable development policies.
  • Teng differs from Chou in temperament and style but he probably views China’s external environment in much the same way Chou did. Events of the last few years demonstrate, however, that the Chou line has encountered recurrent difficulties in its implementation. Without Chou’s authority, prestige, and special talents, Teng may find the going even tougher.
  • —To oversimplify, in the MaoChou team, Mao was the visionary with occasional manic tendencies while Chou was the pragmatist. While a pragmatist like Chou, Teng probably lacks Chou’s ability to say “Yes, but …” to Mao Mao or to implement Mao’s ideas in the least disruptive way.

Even assuming that the succession to Chou proceeds smoothly, his death highlights the Mao succession problem, and at present there is no indication that the Chinese have sorted out this process, which is far more delicate and potentially disruptive.

  1. Source: Department of State, American Embassy (Beijing) Files: Lot 80 F 64, POL 2, General Reports and Statistics, Internal, Jan–Feb 1976. Confidential. Drafted by J. Stapleton Roy and Oscar V. Armstrong (EA/PRCM).
  2. Zhou died on January 8.