The 50th anniversary of the start of the Cultural Revolution passed by in May; meanwhile, today marks the 45th anniversary of an event which hastened its end — Lin Biao’s plane crash.
Alternatively named the 9/13 incident, Lin Biao’s death sent shock waves across the nation. The general, who was once lauded by government propaganda as Chairman Mao’s chosen successor, was later vilified and officially condemned, along with the Gang of Four, for having instigated the worse excesses of the Cultural Revolution.
Born to a prosperous Hubei merchant family, Lin Biao enrolled into the prestigious Whampoa Military Army and became an officer in the Nationalist Army, only to switch sides to the Red Army after the bloody collapse of the First United Front in 1927. He later became famous for the successful deployment of his military strategies and tactics against the CCP’s multitudes of opponents, fighting Japanese and later Kuomintang forces. His victories against the Nationalists during the Chinese Civil War earned him a spot as one of the “ten great marshals” in China’s military pantheon.
After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, Lin remained mostly absent from public view for most of the 1950s. He declined Mao’s offer to lead the People’s Volunteer Army in the Korean War, and suffered from a strange set of illnesses, both mental and physical, that caused him to fear light, noise, wind, cold and water.However, he returned back into the spotlight after replacing disgraced general (and Korean War hero) Peng Dehuai as Defense Minister in 1959.
Having supported Mao’s Great Leap Forward policies, Lin began to initiate reforms in the Chinese military by abolishing ranks, purging pro-Soviet military servicemen and indoctrinating soldiers into Mao Zedong Thought. The Great Helmsman praised Lin for his efforts and Lin praised Mao right back with a Little Red Book, earning himself a spot in the top leadership. In 1969, he became so powerful that the Party constitution was altered to reflect Lin’s role as Mao’s eventual successor.
However, this honeymoon ended quickly after it started. Despite years of support for the Chairman in public, rumors circulated that Lin despised Mao in private. His son Li Liguo described Mao as “a paranoid and sadist,” with Lin himself condemning Mao’s wife Jiang Qing as a “long nosed pit viper.” Mao became increasingly uncomfortable with Lin’s growing power, as much of the Politburo and the Central Committee members were military officers who supported Lin.
A serious rift began to form between the two leaders at the Lushan Conference in 1970, as both leaders exchanged heated criticisms of each other. As a result, many supporters of Lin Biao began to be purged on the orders of the Chairman.
It is at this point that the story follows many different paths. Official government sources stated that Mao’s dismissal of Lin’s supporters led to the general harboring a strong desire for seizing power from the aging Chairman.
In 1971, he and his wife, Ye Qun, along with his son and several military officers began to plan an assassination plot. Codenamed Project 571 (the numbers are a Chinese homonym for the words “armed uprising”), the conspirators allegedly planned to kill Mao by sabotaging his train, which the Chairman was taking after a tour to meet with military and political leaders in Southern China. However, all attempts were foiled, forcing Lin to apparently abort the coup and flee to the Soviet Union.
The group boarded a Trident 1-E aircraft, but took off without enough fuel. The plane eventually crashed near the Mongolian town of Öndörkhaan on September 13th, killing everyone on board.
However, historians have questioned the authenticity of this story. Given that Lin Biao was one of the country’s most successful generals, there is no reason for the general to launch such a poorly-planned coup, let alone escape in such a hasty manner. Furthermore, secretive sources had shown that the plane had enough fuel to travel to some nearby Soviet cities, and that the aircraft’s direction was actually flying away from the USSR. There are also rumors which accused Lin of contacting the Kuomintang in Taiwan shortly before takeoff, or that he was forced onto the plane by his wife and son.
No matter which story you want to believe, Lin’s death hastened the end of one era and paved the road for another. SCMP reports that the subsequent radio denunciations of Lin helped to obliterate any lingering support for the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.
“I was awakened when listening to [the radio broadcasts] about Lin’s defection,” said Shanghai-based historian Liu Tong. “It destroyed my superstitious worship of Mao.” Formerly a worker in Hebei, Liu began to question among many other things: “Why would such a close comrade-in-arms of Chairman Mao for so many decades and his handpicked heir become an ambitious schemer? Had Mao’s brilliance gone? How come chairman Mao wasn’t aware of such a bad guy?”
With Mao’s death in 1976, the Cultural Revolution finally finished its course. The former successor to Mao was lumped in with Jiang Qing and the Gang of Four for being responsible in perpetrating the untold suffering and torture of millions throughout the 10 year period. To this day, the official government stance continues to villainize Lin, condemning him as a traitor to the Party.
However, Lin Biao’s defection and subsequent death also laid the path for smoother political transitions at the top of the Chinese governments. No longer would successors be handpicked, as Mao had done with Liu Shaoqi, Lin Biao, and Hua Guofeng. Instead, Mao’s model of “life and death power struggles” turned into Deng Xiaoping’s “predictable and enlightened power transfer model,” which involves consultation with various political elites in order to select the best potential successors.
And yet, Lin Biao certainly didn’t fix the problem of divisive cliques competing for influence and power at the top level. According to SCMP, experts see the recent purges of high-ranking Party officials, such as former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai and former Central Military Commission vice-chairman Xu Caihou as mirroring what happened 45 years ago, with Xi Jinping interested in purging any perceived challenges to his authority. Particularly those made by “tigers” and beetles.
Though, we wonder, if things went south, which country would Xi’s opponents try to escape to now?
By Arnie Yung
[Images via Taiwan.cn / Sohu / reminbao / tuku.china / DW news / HK01 / NTDTV / Xilu Rolfmueller]