Revolutionary China

Decline and fall of Lin Biao

Revolutionary China

Jack A. Smith recounts the strange fate of Chinese Vice Chairman Lin Biao. This article first appeared in SACU's China Now in 1973.
The fall from grace of Lin Biao marked an important event in China's modern history under Mao. He was at one time the unchallenged successor to Mao. After his disgrace and death campaigns were instigated to denigrate his achievements.

In his major policy address to the Ninth National Congress of the Communist party of China in April 1969, party Vice Chairman Lin Biao concisely summarised the major struggles between two lines that have taken place since the CPC was formed in Shanghai in 1921.

The history of the Communist party of China, he said is one in which Chairman Mao's Marxist-Lenninist line combats right and 'left' opportunist lines in the party. Under the leadership of Chairman Mao, our party defeated Chen Duxiu's right opportunist line, defeated the 'left' opportunist lines of Qu Qiubai and Li Lisan, defeated Wang Ming's first 'left' and then right opportunist lines, defeated Zhang Guotao's line of splitting the Red Army, defeated the right opportunist anti-party bloc of Peng Dehuai, Gao Gang, Jao Shushi and others and, after long years of struggle, has shattered Liu Shaoqi's counterrevolutionary revisionist line. Our party has consolidated itself, developed and grown in strength precisely in the struggle between two lines.

Less than two years later Lin Biao, Defence Minister, Vice Premier of the State Council and successor-designate to Chairman Mao Zedong - whose close comrade-in-arms he appeared to be throughout the crucial years of the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution added his own name to the list. Some months later Lin was dead, presumably along with several military leaders the apparent victim of a tragedy of his own creation.

Lin Biao and Mao Zedong
Lin Biao and Mao Zedong
Yan'an 1936

No typical struggle

And while it is no doubt true that the CPC has consolidated itself, developed and grown in strength since 1969, this was no typical struggle between two lines. Heretofore the 10 or so major struggles within the CPC throughout its 51 -year history have been public affairs, usually involving the entire party and often the great multitudes of the Chinese people. The struggle against Liu Shaoqi's line of bourgeois restoration literally involved hundreds of millions of people and amounted to a genuine revolution in the superstructure of Chinese society.

But the struggle between Lin Biao (joined, it would seem, by certain military leaders and some figures on the left during the cultural revolution between 1966 and 1969) on the one side and Mao Zedong and Premier Zhou Enlai on the other was a battle of an entirely different sort. The masses of people, most of whom learned of Lin's passing last September, were almost completely uninvolved. According to reliable Chinese sources, long-time Western residents of China ard to my own observations during a six-week journey with Tanya Smith through China in April and May, 1972, the departure of Lin Biao from the top leadership of the party had extraordinarily little effect upon the masses of people and the administration of state power.

One reason for this is that the political issues behind the split - the development of a new foreign policy line and the question of restoring the reconstructed CPC to full strength in the administration of Chinese society while reducing the role of the military - had been resolved against Lin within the party nearly a year before his death. Chairman Mao's line was already in effect. Another reason was the bizarre means by which Lin presumably chose to pursue his struggle after defeat by the leading group led by Premier Zhou.

National security and pride

This last reason, I believe, is why the government of the People's Republic of China for so long refused to reveal details about Lin's disappearance and why millions of Chinese cadres (party members and persons in leading positions from school teachers to government leaders) refused to discuss the matter - about which they were informed - with non-Chinese whether inside or outside China. Transcending the usual struggle between two lines, the Lin Biao situation involved matters of national security and national pride.

After 10 months of official silence, creating intense international speculation, the Beijing government has disclosed some essential details of what the Chinese term the 'Lin Biao affair.'

Marshal Lin died in the crash of a Chinese Trident jet plane a considerable distance inside Mongolia the night of 12-13 September. He was presumably fleeing with his personal entourage toward the Soviet Union, following unsuccessful plans for a coup d'etat and an assassination plot against Mao Zedong.

The information was made public outside China in reports from Beijing 27 July, indicating that Chairman Mao discussed the situation with Sri Lanka (Ceylon) Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike and French Foreign Minister Maurice Schumann. In this report, by Beijing correspondent John Burns of the Toronto Globe and Mail, Chairman Mao was said to have told his guests Lin Biao intended to replace China's civilian leadership with a military dictatorship.

The Chinese government made the news official the next day in a statement from Algiers and confirmation from Beijing. In Algiers, the Chinese embassy issued the following statement:

Lin Biao repeatedly committed errors and Mao Zedong had waged many struggles against him. Sometimes Lin Biao was obliged to quell his arrogance and thus was able to accomplish some useful work. But he was not able to give up his underhanded nature and during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution he appeared to support the thought of Mao Zedong and made propaganda in favour of this thought. He was thus able to hoodwink the masses to become in their eyes the successor of Chairman Mao Zedong.
But he was a double-faced man who was in reality opposed to the revolutionary line of Mao Zedong and to the revolutionary foreign policy worked out by him, especially after the ninth party congress. He undertook antiparty activities in a planned, premeditated way with a well determined programme with the aim of taking over power, usurping the leadership of the party, the government and the army. Mao Zedong unmasked his plot and blocked the manoeuvre. Mao Zedong made efforts to recover him but Lin Biao did not change his perverse nature one iota. He attempted a coup d'etat and tried to assassinate Mao Zedong. After his plot was foiled he fled on 12 September towards the Soviet Union on a plane which crashed in the People's Republic of Mongolia.

The 'purge' rumours

Coups and assassination plots such as this are completely contradictory to the way in which the Chinese party has conducted its affairs since its inception, which is what, in my view, makes the Beijing revelation believable in its basics. Rumours of a 'Stalin-type purge' of Lin Biao, largely from the international Trotskyist movement and from some ultra- 'left' quarters which disagree with China's foreign policy line, are ridiculous. Lin had been politically defeated by the end of 1970 and far from being purged, much less 'elinated' (the Militant's latest fantasy), he retained his official positions. (As late as July 1971 - and perhaps later - the joint photo of him and Chairman Mao was appearing in new Chinese publications. On 1 July, 1971, People's Daily published an article commemorating the 50th anniversary of the CPC and Lin Biao was accorded full honours, two months before his death and several months after he lost out in the party struggle.) Lin was not a threat, except insofar as he might resort to underhanded deeds, because he had no substantially independent power base outside of his relationship with Chairman Mao, making a purge of the kind being rumoured hardly necessary much less likely. And it is a fact that the plane crashed in Mongolia, with Lin aboard.

Denouce Lin Biao
People in Chufu County, Shandong denounce Lin Biao's crimes in preaching the doctrine of Confucius and Mencius at a meeting

A key figure

Marshal Lin Biao, born in 1907 the son of a factory owner, was one of the great generals of the Chinese Red Army. He attended Whampoa military academy under the leadership of Chiang Kaishek. A colonel by the age of 19, he joined with the Communist forces a year later. He played a leading role in the Long March and in the struggle against the Japanese invaders and Chinese reactionaries. During this period he was generally a firm supporter of Chairman Mao. He was appointed Defence Minister in the late 1950s and over the next years his relationship with Mao became closer. In 1965 he wrote the important essay, 'Long Live the Victory of People's War,' with Mao's political and military theories as the basis. He was at Mao's side throughout the Cultural Revolution and the struggle against Liu Shaoqi; compiled the famous 'Quotations from Chairman Mao' was a leading exponent of the struggle against Soviet revisionism and, as army chief, was instrumental in defeating revisionism within China during the 1966-69 period.

In the new constitution of the CPC (not the state constitution) of April 1969, it is stated:

'Comrade Lin Biao has consistently held high the great red banner of Mao Zedong Thought and has most loyally and resolutely carried out and defended Comrade Mao Zedong's proletarian revolutionary line. Comrade Lin Biao is Comrade Mao Zedong's close comrade-in-arms and successor'.

At the same Ninth National Congress of the CPC which approved the party constitution, Lin delivered the report quoted from in the beginning of this article. This report, to my knowledge, did not deviate from the thinking of Chairman Mao and the party leadership and in it is to be found the seeds of the policy of party building and foreign policy in operation in China today.

What happened during the two-and-a-half years? Why should Lin, seemingly assured of leadership when the elderly Mao Zedong died, engage in a self-defeating grab for power?

During our visit to China in April and May this year, Tanya Smith and I made inquiries of our hosts as to the whereabouts of the Vice Chairman of the CCP, about whom there had been elaborate silence since late the previous summer. One several-hour discussion was set aside in Beijing for discussing the 'Lin Biao affair,' but the discourse, while providing some hints, did not directly touch upon Lin's disappearance.

'On this problem concerning certain persons such as Lin Biao,' a leading comrade said in reply to our question, 'I am not in a position to put it clearly. What we stress is political line, not certain persons. During the past one or two years an education in political line has been carried out in the country. So this is an aspect of the question.'

Struggle between two lines

Earlier in the conversation it had been made clear the struggle between two lines continued after the overthrow of Liu Shaoqi and his cohorts, that the ultra-'left' was an aspect of this struggle. Some of the differences that existed in political line concerned foreign policy, the rehabilitation into organs of state and party responsibility of some former leading comrades who had changed their ways after criticism and self-criticism, the question of comprehensively studying Marxism-Leninism Mao Zedong Thought 'or just certain works or paragraphs' and other differences.

The comrade noted later that certain sources were trying

to create the impression there is disorder and turmoil in China. Their point is to disturb the fighting wall of the revolutionary people of the world. So our stress in this regard is laid on the victorious results achieved after the struggle. The party has been strengthened and the present situation is very fine. Of course, while you are here you can see with your own eyes the truth of the results of this struggle.

From what we were able to observe and we visited several sections of China and spoke with many leading comrades the situation was very stable. It was obvious that the extremely influential role that the People's Liberation Army had played since the cultural revolution in the party, government and state enterprises was being rapidly phased out and, that the transition to a reassertion of complete party hegemony was taking place. We took this accelerated process of military decontrol to be an aspect of the defeat of Lin Biao's line within the CCP.

Party in command

The party is in command in China after the hectic years of the cultural revolution when it underwent a top-to-bottom shake-up to smash the bourgeois restorationist line led by Liu Shaoqi. And the military has returned to its barracks in good order, with the exception, it would seem, of certain elements in high command led by Lin Biao which sought to retain a dominant voice in civilian affairs.

Throughout the country production is increasing, living standards are being improved and the masses of people according to a perceptive Western resident of China - appear to be in a relaxed and generally buoyant mood after the social dislocations required to bring the cultural revolution to a successful conclusion and launch China in a socialist direction on a higher level.

But even though it is evident 'the present situation is very fine' following the defeat of Lin Biao, this still does not explain what happened to the second most influential individual in China between 1969 and 1971. The Chinese have not been entirely revealing on this matter so I will report what it has been possible to piece together.

The year 1969 was decisive for China, subjectively and objectively.

Subjectively, 1969 basically marked the end of the cultural revolution - a true 'revolution within the revolution' which resulted in the overthrow of bourgeois elements which had infiltrated the institutions of party and state power with a line which would have inevitably led to the complete bourgeoisification of the political and social superstructure and to capitalist penetration of the socialist economic base.

Although the 'capitalist roaders' were largely defeated by 1969, the enormity of the upheaval had disrupted organisational and administrative functioning within the People's Republic. The party, which leads the dictatorship of the proletariat, was just beginning to be reorganised (and at that time, the military under Lin Biao, exercised great influence in the reorganisation process). Some ultra-'left' elements which had risen to responsible positions in the government and party were still not weeded out.

Ultra-'left' influence

In foreign affairs, China was emerging from a phase at least partly characterised by the expression now in use to describe the period 'making revolution by breaking diplomatic relations' - a reference to the fact that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs had to a certain extent fallen under the influence of the ultra- 'left' during the cultural revolution.

China in 1969 was relatively disorganised internally and isolated externally. The Ninth National Congress of the CCP was held in April 1969 in order to reverse this situation. The purpose was to consolidate the gains made in defeating Liu Shaoqi, unify the country, rebuild the party and adopt a more influential line in foreign affairs. Military influence at the Congress was great.

Objectively, two events of great importance were taking place in the world as this process unfolded.

First, state relations with the USSR appeared to the Chinese to be on the verge of war. The border clashes with the Soviet Union had just taken place. China was convinced, in the aftermath of Czechoslovakia and the build-up to over a million Soviet troops and nuclear weapons along the Chinese border, that the USSR intended to launch a war against China. This fear still exists today.

Second, for reasons of its own, the US government began to drop hints that its aggressive policy toward China in particular and Asia in general was in the process of change. In speeches in June and November 1969, President Nixon implied his administration considered US imperialism to be overextended in Asia and in fact sought some means to disengage at least partially from heavy commitments in the Far East. Between the two speeches, in July 1969, Washington announced a degree of relaxation of restrictions on trade and travel to China.

The Chinese understood that US imperialism was not undergoing a strategic transformation but a tactical shift brought about by defeats being suffered in Vietnam. While harbouring no illusions about the aggressive nature of imperialism, or the insistence of the Nixon administration of maintaining US domination of South Vietnam, many leaders in the Beijing government understood that an opportunity existed to make use of the contradictions in Washington's developing new stance.

Two enemies, changing situation

Thus, by the end of 1969, China believed it faced two major enemies more powerful than itself. In Beijing's eyes, the new enemy to the north (the USSR) was on the verge of starting a war while the old enemy (US imperialism) with some 120 military bases in an arc south and east of China was unexpectedly showing signs that it desired a temporary relaxation in the antagonism it had displayed to China for two decades. At the same time, the Ninth Party Congress had not resulted in the desired degree of unity. Important differences remained, not the least being the extent to which Lin Biao sought to have the military control state institutions and the party.

These two questions - how China, should relate to the new world situation and the military-civilian equation - appear to me to have been the basis of a new struggle between two lines which began sometime in 1969. The exact positions are unclear. I suspect, in general, Lin Biao's line was as follows:

In regard to foreign affairs, largely continue the tactical policy of the cultural revolution, fight both enemies at the same time with equal force and spread revolution and 'Maoism' on the basis of supporting revolutionary struggles wherever and whenever they break out, ignoring or showing hostility toward other aspects of the international situation. In regard to the state and party, it would appear Lin's faction intended to retain military hegemony for some time, if not dramatically increase army control of the entire society.

The developing opposition to Lin's line, apparently led by Premier Zhou Enlai, probably took the following line: In regard to foreign affairs, make distinctions between imperialists (the Chinese consider the Soviet Union among them), determine which is the principal and which is the secondary enemy at a given moment, make use of contradictions within the enemy camp and between enemies, win over the many (united front of all nations against the superpowers), oppose the few (US and USSR) and crush the enemies one by one. This line represents many of Chairman Mao's ideas tactically applied to the current world situation. (In practice it has meant accepting the temporary relaxation in relations offered by US imperialism so as to remove one immediate threat to China, attempt to divide the superpowers to the extent possible where they collude and build an important alliance of small, medium-sized and third world nations - the great majority of the world's population - to struggle against 'the two overlords,' defeating them one at a time.) In regard to the state and party, Premier Zhou and those who supported his position at the time wished to restore China to complete civilian control in a short period of time.

Zhou's line gains

These issues were argued at an important second plenary session of the CPC's central committee in late August and early September 1970. It would appear that the line represented by Premier Zhou gained considerable strength. Either at this point or a short while later, Chairman Mao must have thrown his decisive influence to Zhou. In December 1970, Mao granted an interview to the late Edgar Snow which contained the seeds of the new policy toward the US. (In the interview, Mao also indicated displeasure toward the "cult" which had developed around his person during the cultural revolution, indicating that he had finally been able to reverse the process. One of the veiled charges against Lin later on was that he purposefully sought to isolate Chairman Mao from the masses by depicting him in virtually superhuman terms.)

At the same time there are indications that the CPC's political bureau made a decision to swiftly rebuild the party by calling for provincial party elections, a big step to reasserting party dominance. Lin, it is said, was not anxious for these elections to take place, holding out instead for primary consideration to be given to the building up of state institutions, which posed no threat to his emphasis on military control.

In his discussions with the two foreign diplomats Mao was quoted as having said that the Lin Biao conspiracy to stage a coup began in December 1970.

Despite his defeat in the struggle between two lines, Lin Biao remained in power and retained his positions but Premier Zhou, with the support of the majority and Chairman Mao, was making policy. In early 1971, secret preparations were made to receive President Nixon's security advisor, Henry Kissinger. In July it was announced Nixon would visit China "to seek the normalisation of relations between the two countries."

According to the Chinese announcement on Lin Biao, Chairman Mao "made efforts to recover" his second in command after the failure of Lin's "aim of taking over power, usurping the leadership of the party, the government and the army" in the power struggle of 1969-70. "But Lin Biao," the statement continued, "did not change his perverse nature one iota. He attempted a coup d'etat and tried to assassinate Mao Zedong." The planning for this apparently took place between January and September 1971.

There are rumours that a top level meeting of the Chinese political leadership took place in September at which Lin, still presumably fighting for his line after the issue had been decided, was completely defeated and may even have lost his post. This cannot be verified. Nor can it be said precisely when and how Lin attempted to dispose of Mao and take power.

On September 12, Lin, army chief of staff - Huang Yungsheng and several others, swiftly and secretly took flight toward the USSR, only to crash in Mongolia. Why the USSR? Lin may have figured that even though Moscow might disagree with his line it would welcome the opportunity to cause China grave embarrassment by harbouring him.

As to why Lin didn't bide his time, awaiting his succession to party leadership, my guess is that after his 1969-70 defeat and developments in 1971, Lin surmised he might well be out of power before the death of Chairman Mao.

In the months since Lin's death, no direct word has appeared in the Chinese press about the fate of the party's second in command. But this does not mean the Chinese people were ignorant of the event or its details. It is my understanding, from several Chinese and non-Chinese sources, that the masses of people discussed the "Lin Biao affair" at considerable length in the autumn of 1971, in meetings in factories, communes, schools, military posts and wherever people gather. Also, several important articles have appeared in the Chinese press since September which discuss Lin Biao without mentioning his name. These articles were the subject of mass discussion.

The most recent important article was published throughout the nation on 1 August, 1972, commemorating the 45th anniversary of the founding of the People's Liberation Army.

"Since the second plenary session of the Ninth Central Committee of the party," the article said, referring to the August-September 1970 meeting where Lin was defeated, or began to be defeated.

“the People's Liberation Army, with the warm attention of Chairman Mao, has carried out education in ideology and political line and achieved remarkable results. Armed with the three basic principles put forward by Chairman Mao, namely 'practise Marxism and not revisionism; unite and don't split; be open and aboveboard and don't intrigue and conspire,' the commanders and fighters have made a deep-going criticism of Liu Shaoqi and other swindlers. This has raised the political consciousness of the People's Army. It has become a common practice among the cadres and fighters to make a serious study of works by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin and Chairman Mao's works ... Any careerist or conspirator who wants to undermine this army is only daydreaming. Chairman Mao has pointed out: 'The correctness or incorrectness of the ideological and political line decides everything. 'When the party's line is correct, we have everything; if we have no men, we will have them; if we have no rifles, we can get them: if we do not have state power, we will be able to seize it: if the line is incorrect, we will lose what we already have ... (The PLA is) a genuine people's army under the absolute leadership of the party and an instrument for' carrying out the party's program and line ...”

That is, the militarists were defeated. The Lin Biao affair, in contradiction to conventional struggles between two lines in the CPC, is an unfortunate page in Chinese history. But it is a page that has been decisively turned. A new page, with China stabilizing itself internally and exercising extraordinary influence externally, has replaced it.

© Copyright Society for Anglo-Chinese Understanding (SACU) 2006, reprinted from SACU's magazine China Now 30, Page 3, March 1973

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the view of SACU.
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