Although Lin Biao had been officially designated as Mao Zedong’s heir apparent, Lin’s fortunes took a sudden turn for the worse in the wake of Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to Beijing in July 1971. Lin had strongly opposed détente with the Americans. And then everything came to a head in a complex web of intrigue.
Lin Biao’s Death: The Official Account
The basic facts are these: Lin Biao died in a fiery airplane crash in Outer Mongolia on the night of September 12, 1971. At the time of his death, Lin stood accused of conspiring to assassinate Mao and seize power, with the assistance of his son, an air force pilot, and a small group of high-ranking military officers.
According to the official account of Lin’s death, published several months after the fact, the plotters planned to assassinate Mao on the night of September 12. But before they could set their plan in motion, Lin’s daughter inadvertently revealed the plot’s existence to an associate of Premier Zhou Enlai, whereupon Zhou ordered the immediate arrest of the conspirators, including Lin Biao, his wife, and his son.
Tipped off that their plot had been exposed, Lin’s family fled from their home in the middle of the night to a nearby military airfield. There they commandeered a British-made Trident jet and took off. Originally intending to fly to Guangzhou in southern China, they suddenly altered their course and headed northwest across the Gobi Desert. Just why they did so remains shrouded in mystery. After the fact, it was claimed that Lin was planning to defect to Moscow.
In any event, in their haste to get away, the conspirators somehow neglected to refuel their Trident aircraft, which proceeded to run out of gas over the Mongolian People’s Republic. In the ensuing crash, all occupants of the plane were killed.
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In a document captured from Lin’s son, who was not aboard the ill-fated Trident jet when it crashed, sensational details of the plot were revealed. Allegedly drafted by the younger Lin himself, the document referred to Mao Zedong as “Old B-52”—an allusion to the chairman’s practice of remaining above the fray, out of sight, while he dropped powerful “bombs” on his adversaries below:
Today [B-52] uses sweet words and honeyed talk to those whom he entices; tomorrow he puts them to death for fabricated crimes… Today he woos A and strikes at B; tomorrow he will woo B and strike at A … Viewed from the perspective of several [decades], has there been anyone promoted by him who later escaped a political death sentence? … Has there been any political force which could cooperate with him from beginning to end?
This is a transcript from the video series The Fall and Rise of China. Watch it now, on Wondrium.
Inconsistencies in the Account
As additional details of the Lin Biao affair leaked out, the story proved to have a number of internal gaps, holes, and contradictions. Most intriguing of all were the glaring inconsistencies between the official Chinese version of Lin Biao’s fatal flight and an on-scene investigation by a team of Russian and Mongolian forensic pathologists, who were the first to visit the crash site.
According to their report, when the badly charred bodies of the pilot and passengers were recovered from the wreckage, several of the corpses bore bullet holes, which further contradicted the Chinese claim that the airplane’s occupants had all perished in the crash.
Character Assassination of Lin Biao
Among other high crimes and misdemeanors, Lin was posthumously (and rather incongruously) accused of being “a hidden son of the landlord class”, “a secret admirer of Confucius”, a “swindler like Liu Shaoqi”, and a pro-Soviet “revisionist and traitor” who wanted “to practice the fascist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.
In an attempt to wipe the Chinese people’s memory clean of any references to the traitorous defense minister, all extant photos of Lin Biao were withdrawn from circulation, and his public works were banned. Even the second edition of Mao’s all-time best-selling Little Red Book—with over 500 million copies in print—was quietly removed from Chinese bookstores and libraries. Why? Its preface had been personally inscribed by Lin Biao.
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So, Why Did Lin Biao Die?
It is now widely accepted that at the time of Lin’s alleged coup attempt, Mao had already decided to remove him as his designated successor. The chairman had hinted at the underlying reason when he told Richard Nixon, during their February 1972 meeting, that Lin had been the leader of “a reactionary group which is opposed to our contact with you”.
Evidently, by the end of 1970, Lin had become aware of Mao’s rising anger at him. Soon afterward, according to one insider’s report, Lin’s son, an air force pilot with political ambitions of his own, devised the assassination plan in an effort to beat “Old B-52” to the punch. It was, in the son’s own words, a case of “eat or be eaten”.
With Lin Biao and several of his top PLA generals out of the picture, either dead or in prison, there now remained two main competitors for Mao’s mantle: Jiang Qing’s leftist Shanghai Clique and a veteran group of senior party officials who had managed to survive the purges of the Cultural Revolution. The latter group had no love for the radical leftists, and they generally looked to the more moderate and pragmatic Zhou Enlai for leadership. Now wonder then, that Zhou soon became Jiang Qing’s target.
Common Questions about the Death of Lin Biao
Lin Biao died in an airplane crash in Outer Mongolia on the night of September 12, 1971. At the time of his death, Lin stood accused of conspiring to assassinate Mao and seize power, with the assistance of his son, an air force pilot, and a small group of high-ranking military officers.
Lin Biao was posthumously accused of being “a hidden son of the landlord class”, “a secret admirer of Confucius”, a “swindler like Liu Shaoqi”, and a pro-Soviet “revisionist and traitor” who wanted “to practice the fascist dictatorship of the bourgeoisie”.
At the time of Lin’s alleged coup attempt, Mao had already decided to remove him as his designated successor. By the end of 1970, Lin had become aware of Mao’s rising anger at him. Soon afterward, Lin’s son devised the assassination plan in an effort to beat Mao to the punch.