He was born in 1901 in Sichuan Province. Under the influence of New Youth magazine, first published in 1915 by Chen Duxiu, Zhao became an active supporter of the New Cultural Movement, a bourgeoisie campaign calling for the spread of science and democracy in feudalist China. During the campaign, Zhao met Li Dazhao, one of the CPC founders. In 1919, Zhao joined the famous May 4th Movement. He then went on to publish a number of anti-feudalist magazines, including the Weekly of Ordinary People, Youth (a bi-weekly) and Worker’s Reading (also a bi-weekly).
In May 1920, Zhao journeyed to France to study, and the next year he met Zhou Enlai (1898-1976), who later became the first premier of People’s Republic of China (PRC). Together they organized an early CPC organization for the overseas students. In 1922, he was promoted to party secretary of the CPC’s organization in France, and the following year he traveled to Moscow to study communist theories.
By 1924, Zhao was back home and assisted Li in organizing the labor movement in northern China. In 1925, Zhao organized a protest in Beijing after the May 30th Massacre, in which dozens of Chinese were killed, injured and arrested during their protest against the imperialists. Afterward, Li assigned him to Tianjin and Tangshan, Hebei Province, to organize strikes among textile and mining workers. Later that year, Zhao moved to Inner Mongolia and was elected as the vice secretary of the central committee of the Great Alliance of Farmers, Workers and Soldiers, which trained a group of Inner Mongolian CPC leaders.
When the Northern Expedition Army, China’s anti-warlord army organized to fight for the unification of the country, reached Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province, in 1926, Zhao left Inner Mongolia for Shanghai to lead the armed uprisings of the city workers. However, the first and second uprisings all failed due to poor timing. In the third uprising, Zhao and Zhou led the armed workers to victory against the warlords’ armies in the non-colonial areas of the city. It was an important contribution to the Northern Expedition Armies’ battle in Jiangsu and Zhejiang Provinces.
In April 1927, Chiang Kai-shek’s massacre of CPC members made Shanghai a dangerous city. Nonetheless, Zhao, who was promoted to the central committee of the CPC in the party’s fifth congress, continued his struggle in the war-torn city. Unfortunately, he was betrayed and arrested on July 2, 1927. The Kuomintang imprisoned him and allegedly tortured him severely. Despite that, Zhao refused to betray his cause. On July 19, he was shot dead at the age of 26.
After the founding of People’s Republic of China in 1949, Sichuan residents erected a memorial hall for him near his former home.