- The Washington Times - Friday, October 9, 2009

BEIJING

Zhou Youguang was a child of 6 when a revolution toppled China’s last emperor in 1912. He was 43 when he says he left a Wall Street banker’s job to help Mao Zedong’s communists create what he thought would be a democracy after decades of warlord rule, occupation and civil war.

Now 103, he has seen China transformed from a country of 368 million being carved up by foreign powers to a nation of 1.3 billion and the world’s fastest-growing major economy, expanding at an average annual rate of 9.9 percent from 1978 to 2008.

He says he still believes China will eventually become a democracy - in spite of communism, not because of it.

“China will follow the mainstream of the world, sooner or later,” the pajama-clad Mr. Zhou said during an interview in the book-lined study of his third-floor walk-up apartment in central Beijing.

His experiences encapsulate the complicated legacy of the Communist Party, which celebrated 60 years in power this month with a military parade past Tiananmen - the Gate of Heavenly Peace - where Mao proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic on Oct. 1, 1949.

While Mr. Zhou endured three years of forced separation from his family during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, he survived a purge of intellectuals that led many of his colleagues to commit suicide. He was also given the opportunity to devise a new system of spelling out Chinese characters with the Roman alphabet that helped hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants learn to read.

“There were very few who returned from America who escaped the catastrophe,” Mr. Zhou said. “I was one of the very lucky ones.”

Like China’s leaders, Mr. Zhou divides communist rule into two periods: the first three decades dominated by Mao, who died in 1976, and the second characterized by the opening of China to the world by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, who died in 1997. While Deng’s era sparked rapid growth, Mr. Zhou, an economist by training, considers it a mixed success.

Deng “reformed the economy but didn’t reform politics,” Mr. Zhou said. “In the political scene, there was absolutely no change; it was an autocracy.”

That wasn’t the outcome Zhou Enlai promised Mr. Zhou in the late 1930s. The two, who aren’t related, met in Chongqing when the Yangzi River city became the wartime capital following Japan’s occupation of Nanjing in 1937.

Zhou Enlai - who would become China’s leader in 1949 - held monthly get-togethers with intellectuals, including Mr. Zhou, who worked for Sin Hua Trust & Savings Bank, which was founded in 1914 and became part of the Bank of China Ltd. in 2001.

Mr. Zhou left China for New York at the end of 1946 to represent Sin Hua at Irving Trust Co., the bank’s U.S. agent, at its Art Deco headquarters at 1 Wall Street. He and his wife, Zhang Yunhe, returned to Shanghai in June 1949, as the communists neared victory.

“We thought that with China liberated, there was hope; everyone wanted to come back home and do something,” Mr. Zhou wrote in a 2008 autobiography.

When he arrived, Shanghai - occupied by the People’s Liberation Army the previous month - straddled the communist-capitalist divide. Mr. Zhou lived in both worlds, working at Sin Hua and at what is now the Shanghai University of Finance and Economics as a professor.

There he and his colleagues, most of them scholars who returned from the U.S., watched as textbooks were jettisoned for new ones reflecting Marxist theories of class struggle.

In 1955, Mr. Zhou, whose hobby was linguistics, was asked during a Beijing conference to lead a group creating a standardized system of writing Chinese phonetically with Roman letters.

The project would supersede a hodgepodge of Romanization systems and was part of a drive that included simplifying the way thousands of characters were written and teaching a common language, Mandarin, in schools throughout the country.

“I said no way, I’m an amateur,” Mr. Zhou said. It was too late; the prime minister, who remembered his avocation from their days in Chongqing, had already called Mr. Zhou’s colleagues in Shanghai and told them he wouldn’t be coming home.

Mr. Zhou’s pinyin system - which turned “Peking” into “Beijing” - uses markers to identify which of Mandarin’s four tones to use. It became the national standard in 1958 and has helped reduce China’s illiteracy rate to 10 percent today from about 80 percent in the 1950s.

His new career also kept him relatively safe when economics professors, especially those who had lived in the U.S., became targets of Mao’s Anti-Rightist Campaign in 1957 to purge anyone he thought opposed his revolution.

“Every day there were people killing themselves,” Mr. Zhou wrote in his autobiography.

Mr. Zhou didn’t completely escape persecution. He was branded a “reactionary academic authority” in 1969 during the Cultural Revolution and sent to northwestern China’s Ningxia region, where, already well into his 60s, he spent a year toiling in rice paddies.

He was allowed to return to his family in 1972. Since then he’s helped make pinyin a global standard and published books on linguistics.

Mr. Zhou never expressed regret in the interview for giving up his New York lifestyle. In 1949, the “common people trusted the Communist Party,” he said. Looking back over 60 years, he now believes the party, which he never joined, “cheated the Chinese people. They destroyed everything, especially the intellectuals.”

That doesn’t stop Mr. Zhou from saying that China’s economic boom will someday be accompanied by the democracy he had hoped to help create.

“I’m always optimistic,” he said.

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