Born in 1948 in Dongan, Heilongjiang, Zhou graduated from the Beijing Chemical Engineering Institute in 1975. He later graduated from Qinghua University in 1985 with a doctorate in systems engineering.
From 1979 to 1985, Zhou took part in economic reform policy analyses, before serving as a member of the State Commission for Restructuring the Economy and as assistant minister of foreign economic relations and trade.
In 1995, he was appointed director of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange and served in that position until April of 1998. He was simultaneously the vice-governor of the PBC until he was appointed governor of the China Construction Bank in 1999.
He served as chair of the China Securities Regulatory Commission (CSRC) from February 2000 to December 2002, during which time he earned a reputation for pushing for strict supervision requirements in Chinas stock markets.
Beginning in March 2000, Zhou became a member of the PBC Monetary Policy Commission and was named PBC governor in December 2002. He was appointed a full member of the CCP Central Committee in November 2002.