The assassination attempt of Zhou Enlai

Society & Culture

In 1955, Chinese premier Zhou Enlai was the target of an assassination attempt by the KMT in what has become known as the "Kashmir Princess" incident, named after a passenger plane that was rigged with a time bomb. Sixteen people died, but Zhou was not among them.

This Week in China’s History: April 11, 1955

Although we’ve focused a lot on the 20th century in this column — a presentist bias and my own training pushes me that way — we’ve spent little time in the 1950s specifically. This week, we address that with some cloak-and-dagger in the alleyways of Hong Kong and skies above the South China Sea.

What became known as the “Kashmir Princess” incident was enabled by three odd wrinkles in the Cold War, all involving the People’s Republic of China. Often portrayed as a conflict between two monolithic blocs, the Cold War was never just that (and has been mentioned before in this column, in Asia it was rarely cold).

The first of these wrinkles was the Non-Aligned Movement. Wary of identifying too closely with either of the world’s superpowers, a group of countries — mostly former colonies in Asia and Africa — banded together in hopes of resisting the binary forcing them to choose the U.S. or the USSR. The Non-Aligned Movement would not formally be inaugurated until 1961, but the process began almost as soon as the Cold War did. In 1955, the first global conference of African and Asian states was organized, to be held in the city of Bandung in Indonesia. Premier Zhōu Ēnlái 周恩来 would represent the People’s Republic of China, a crucial participant, especially with the meeting taking place in the context of the First Taiwan Straits crisis that had the region at the brink of war.

It was Taiwan, the focus of the near-conflagration in 1954, that was the second anomaly in all this. Taiwan — the Republic of China — was increasingly concerned about its status in the spring of 1955. Both China and not-China, Taiwan had just a few years before been all but abandoned by its American allies. The Korean War had changed the Americans’ tune and brought Taiwan under U.S. Treaty protection, but the situation was fluid, as the crisis of 1954 illustrated. Recent rapprochement between the United Kingdom and the PRC had led to fears that Taiwan’s place in the “China” seat at the UN might be in jeopardy.

The third factor in all this was Hong Kong. A British colony at the border of the People’s Republic, Hong Kong was also just a few hundred miles from Taiwan. Like Berlin or Vienna, Hong Kong was a place where global conflicts became very local.

In the spring of 1955, pieces went into motion on this wrinkled board. Most of the account that follows is based on Steve Tsang’s 1994 article, “Target Zhou Enlai,” in The China Quarterly. Some additional archives from the PRC have been opened in the years since its publication, but none that change the overall picture.

In April 1955, Zhou Enlai made plans to head for Indonesia. He had a growing global reputation as a diplomat, and his composure and dignity had been emphasized recently when he was famously snubbed by U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles at Geneva in 1954. By refusing to shake Zhou’s hand, Dulles elevated his rival rather than marginalizing him. British Prime Minister Anthony Eden met privately with Zhou in Geneva on several occasions, to the consternation of the Americans.

Also concerned by Zhou’s celebrity was the KMT that ruled Taiwan as a one-party state. Chiang Kai-shek’s government was worried not only by the overtures to Great Britain, but feared that even greater diplomatic success potentially awaited Zhou in Indonesia. Zhou was already looking like a force for restraint and reason in contrast to the U.S. and Taiwan because of the Straits crisis. If he were to engineer a Non-Aligned Movement that presented a viable alternative to the Mutually Assured Destruction offered by the Americans and the Soviets, it would be hard to keep the PRC out of the UN. To prevent this possibility, KMT intelligence agencies hatched a plan to prevent Zhou from making it to Bandung: they would assassinate him en route.

Tsang suggests several motives for this plot. Not only would it eliminate the PRC’s most able diplomat, it would avenge the loss of several islands in the lead-up to the Straits stand-off in 1954. Furthermore, if the plot were engineered in British Hong Kong it could poison the budding relationship between Beijing and London. Hong Kong also offered a unique opportunity for access: Zhou would transit the colony on his way to Indonesia.

In March 1955, KMT operatives in Hong Kong worked out the details. Security around Zhou himself would be tight, and the premier would not go through the normal customs or boarding procedures. Baggage and other details were handled by the mainland’s China Travel Service, and non-essential personnel were not granted access to the plane. Given all this, neither shooting Zhou nor placing a bomb in luggage seemed feasible. Instead, it was decided to seek access to the plane on the tarmac at Kai Tak airport in order to sabotage it.

Limited access and short notice precluded the use of an experienced agent. There was no time to develop a cover story and infiltrate an operative into the airport; they would need to recruit a local. The Taiwanese settled on an employee of the Hong Kong aircraft engineering company named Zhōu Jū 周驹 (there are differing accounts of his surname). Then working as an aircraft cleaner, Zhou had been in Hong Kong since 1950, and gambling debts made him a receptive target. Zhou Ju would be part of the crew performing routine maintenance on Zhou Enlai’s plane, meaning he’d have a window of opportunity to plant an explosive on board.

On April 11, Zhou’s plane from Hong Kong to Jakarta was to be the “Kashmir Princess,” a Lockheed Constellation operated by Air India. Completing its normal route, it arrived in Hong Kong from Bangkok around noon, and spent nearly 90 minutes on the ground at Kai Tak. Luggage — 37 pieces — were loaded onto the place, supervised carefully by CTS. During that time, while part of the crew was performing its scheduled maintenance, Zhou Ju placed a time bomb in the aircraft’s starboard wheel well.

The plane departed at 1:26 pm and flew for several hours before the bomb detonated, at an altitude of 18,000 feet. The explosion did not destroy the plane, but the cabin quickly filled with smoke, and fire spread rapidly. The crew managed an emergency water landing, but the plane broke up on impact. Though three crew members in the cockpit and tail survived, five other crew members and all 11 passengers on board died when the cabin sank.

But Zhou Enlai was not among them.

Officially, Zhou was saved through blind luck: an emergency appendectomy prevented him from taking the scheduled flight. He went on to Bandung a few days later and enjoyed the success that Taiwan had feared. And Zhou’s success was amplified when the attempt on his life — and the Taiwanese and, perhaps, American CIA involvement — was revealed.

Tsang sees a more cynical explanation: Zhou was not on the plane because PRC intelligence had determined, at least a day earlier, that the plane was being targeted. In response, the main delegates on the plane — Zhou himself, but also Vice Premier Chén Yì 陈毅 and other top delegates — were delayed. In this version of events, the victims of the crash were among the most cynical victims of the Cold War: Beijing knew that the sabotage was likely, and in fact warned Hong Kong authorities about it, but rather than divert the charter to a nearby airport (like Guangzhou) or cancel the flight altogether, they let the flight go ahead, with 16 lives deemed expendable.

In this calculation, the casualties were worth the public relations damage that the plot caused Taiwan and the United States. Zhou Ju, the saboteur, left Hong Kong for Taiwan on an American CIA-sponsored plane, though whether this meant that the U.S. had taken part in the plot, or was only answering a request from its Taiwanese allies, is not known. Sought for questioning a few days later, Taiwan refused to extradite him. Wary that Zhou’s trial might not produce a conviction, and concerned about the publicity the trial might produce, the British government half-heartedly pursued extradition until Zhou’s case faded from public attention.

In recent weeks and months, debate has resumed over the state of Taiwan-mainland relations and the role that the United States might have in a potential conflict between the two sides of the Taiwan Straits. The “Kashmir Princess” incident reminds us that not too long ago, the fighting between the two sides was not limited to words and worry, but included very real attacks, attempted high-level assassination, spycraft, and murder.

This Week in China’s History is a weekly column. (An earlier version of this article misidentified U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. We apologize for the mistake.)