A new book claims that China’s first Prime Minister Zhou Enlai was probably homosexual.

Zhou served as the first Premier of the People’s Republic of China under Mao Zedong – reamining in place from October 1949 until his death in January 1976.

The leader, who was considered instrumental in consolidating the control of the Communist Party, had two children with his wife of 51 years, Deng Yingchao.

However, a controversial new book set to be published in Hong Kong suggests that Zhou was gay – and was once “in love” with a male schoolmate, two years younger than him.

There is still a strong social taboo on homosexuality in China, though gay people find some acceptance in Hong Kong and other liberal areas. There are no openly gay politicians in China.

Hong Kong-based author Tsoi Wing-mui came to the conclusion after reading the publicly-available letters and diaries of Zhou and his wife Deng Yingchao, speculating based on the pair’s writings and emotional detachment.

She explained to Reuters that the pair’s true relationship and references to Zhou’s homosexuality had been “hidden in plain sight” – but that mainland Chinese scholars would not recognise or acknowledge the links.

She said: “When mainland Chinese authors came into contact with this material, they would not consider the possibility of homosexuality.

“Zhou Enlai was a gay politician who had the misfortune of being born 100 years early.”

Zhou’s diaries were published in 1998.