He developed his interests in economics and engineering during his undergraduate days at the Beijing Chemical Engineering Institute. After graduating in 1975, he worked for three years as a technician at the No. 4 Research Office of the Beijing Institute of Automation. To pursue his interest in economics and engineering, he conducted graduate studies from 1978 to 1981 and then continued his research in engineering at the No. 1 Research Office from 1981 to 1985. Zhou completed his formal education by earning his doctorate in economic system engineering from Tsinghua University in 1985.
Zhou put his degrees in economic system engineering to immediate use in 1986, when he became an assistant to the minister at the Ministry of Foreign Economic Relations and Trade. After joining the CCP in 1986, he became a member and eventually the director of the State Commission for Restructuring the Economy. In the same year, Zhou joined the China Economic Restructuring Research Institute, serving as deputy director of the Chinese Economic Reform Research. His work on economic system reform led him to roles in the State Council Economic Policy Group (1986–87), as assistant minister of Foreign Trade and Economic Co-operation (1986–89), and as a member of the National Committee on Economic Reform (1986–91).
Using his considerable experience in engineering economic systems and years of study in the field, Zhou became a respected scholar, professor, writer, and administrator. His publications include over ten books and over 100 journal articles on economic reform, including Rebuilding the Relationship between the Enterprise and the Bank, which received the Sun Zhifang Economics Thesis Prize in 1994; Marching Toward an Open Economic System, which received a Zijie International Trade Publications Award in 1994; and Social Security: Reform and Policy Recommendations, another Sun Zhifang Economics Thesis Prize-winner in 1997. His academic roles include professorship at the School of Management of Tsinghua University, Graduate School of PBOC, Business School of University of Science and Technology of China, and honorary president of the China Business School, University of Science and Technology.
Zhou’s banking career began in earnest in 1991, when he joined the People’s Bank of China and became a member of the CCP Party Committee. During this period he oversaw the creation of asset-management companies charged with working out the banking system’s bad debt. Zhou also played a role in managing China’s vast foreign reserves. In the following year, he became a student in the Central Party School, a typical and necessary step to prepare officials for higher promotions in the Chinese political system. By the mid-1990s Zhou had worked his way up to the position of director of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), a role he undertook for three years. Respect for his work became evident in 1996 when he was promoted to vice governor of the People’s Bank of China, and in 1997 he became a member of the Chinese Monetary Policy Committee, 1st Council, a position he held through late 2008.
With a successful record at the People’s Bank of China, he joined the China Construction Bank as its governor in 1998. Two years later Zhou was called back to the People’s Bank of China as a member of the Monetary Policy Department and chairman of the State Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC). In this capacity, Zhou was nick-named ‘Bapi’ (¼fiþ) literally Zhou ‘the flayer’. He targeted corruption in listed companies, angering many small shareholders who blamed the fall of their shares on the crack-down. In July 2001, Zhou declared his intention to reduce state ownership in the stock market. The stock market quickly went into freefall, forcing him to abandon his plans that October.
As a noted Chinese economist, reformist, and bureaucrat, Zhou is considered one of the most influential figures in the Chinese economy. His comments on Chinese currency and the stock market will likely continue to have significant impacts on the Chinese economy and on financial markets around the world.