Chapter 28: A Mysterious Death
A Mysterious Death
By the middle of 1969, the Red Guards had been completely disbanded. Now, with all opposition crushed and order finally returning to his nation, Mao could focus on rebuilding China in his own image.
Lin Biao was officially the new leader of China, after the purging of Liu Shaoqi, even though Mao controlled Lin. Mao ensured that Lin was constitutionally confirmed to be his successor, and that Maoism was made the official ideology of the Communist Party.
But this doesn’t mean the Cultural Revolution was over. No, not by a longshot. The Cultural Revolution was part of Mao’s vision of continuous revolution, and as such the revolution had to continue on. No, it wasn’t over, but it was entering a new phase.
This new phase was a safer phase for most citizens. It was a phase of new order, where they could rebuild their country out of the ashes of the chaos they had just survived.
But for the leaders of the Communist Party and government, things weren’t so safe. A tension lingered. Everyone near the top maintained a hyperconsciousness of the one at the very top. Mao was the man, and he was not one to be challenged in any manner. Everyone knew, or should have known, that they had to walk on eggshells if they wanted successful careers and good, long lives.
But one day someone forgot about this and slipped up. And that person was none other than the man directly below Chairman Mao himself. It was Lin Biao. Lin Biao, who was instrumental in the sacking of Liu Shaoqi, and who took his place as the official leader of China, suddenly found himself in the hot seat.
Lin had been a very effective general in the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), during the civil war. He had led the PLA to decisive victories in Manchuria, and in the taking of coastal provinces in Southeast China. His many successes had led him to the number three ranking among generals in the PLA.
So he had great influence within the PLA, and enjoyed its strong support. And although this was helpful for Lin, it was also problematic, since the PLA had many members in the Politburo. It left Mao feeling a little wary about what Lin could do with his political power, should he choose to usurp Mao.
But Lin knew it was wise to stay on Mao’s good side. And he tried. But this was not always easy to do, especially because of China’s deteriorating relationship with the Soviet Union.
When the Cultural Revolution began, China isolated itself after declaring that both the Soviet Union and the United States were its enemies. The Soviets had once been allies of China, but Mao rejected them after he came to believe they were adopting revisionism and straying from the pure teachings of Marx and Engels.
Friction between China and the USSR increased, and they almost went to war in March of 1969, after a border clash near Siberia. By October 1969, war seemed inevitable and senior leaders evacuated Beijing, expecting hostilities to break out at any moment. So on October 18, Lin Biao issued an executive order to the PLA to prepare for war.
This seemed like a routine order one would expect from any ordinary leader of a country in a similar situation. But the problem for Lin Biao was that he was no ordinary leader. Even though it was a routine executive order, he had to pass it through Mao first, to gain his approval. Mao had him on that short of a leash. And he failed to pass it through him. Whoops.
The ever-paranoid Mao felt alarmed, and worried Lin was trying to usurp his authority. And he also worried that war would make the PLA even more powerful within the Politburo, and closer to Lin, thus increasing Lin’s stature at the expense of Mao’s.
Tension developed between Mao and Lin. Mao’s ruminating mind saw Lin as possibly allied with the Soviets, secretly plotting a small war with the USSR as a ruse to gain enough popular support to depose Mao from power. This may sound crazy, but Mao was no stranger to complex plots, so it was easy for his imagination to run so wild.
Lin, on the other hand, feared Mao, and wanted to avoid getting on his bad side. He realized he’d screwed up big time, with that executive order, and he wasn’t sure how to get out of it. So for the next few years, he worried he was going to suffer the same fate as his predecessor, Liu Shaoqi.
In 1971, Mao invited U.S. President Richard Nixon to visit China. It’s speculated by some historians that one reason behind this invitation was to ally himself with the United States, in order to deter the Soviet Union from attacking China and assisting any coup plot Lin might be planning against him. But while this is speculation, it does make sense, due to Mao’s habitual manner of thinking in terms of complex plots to gain power.
In July 1971, Mao’s paranoia took him over the edge. He decided it was time to purge Lin and his supporters. What happened after this was bizarre, and has been subject to much debate, and has never been completely resolved.
The official Chinese government explanation is that Lin tried to assassinate Mao on September 11, 1971. First he tried to sabotage Mao’s train. But Mao unexpectedly changed his route and bypassed the saboteurs. Then he tried a couple of other assassination attempts, but Mao’s bodyguards intervened.
By the official explanation, it seemed Mao had incredible luck that day, perhaps bringing to mind the luck of Inspector Clouseau.
The official account goes on to say that Lin tried to flee the country after his repeated failures to kill Mao. On September 13, 1971, he boarded an airplane with his wife and son, and headed for the Soviet Union to seek asylum. But he never made it. His plane got as far as Mongolia, where it crashed, killing all onboard.
That was the official explanation.
But in the late-1970’s, the Chinese government destroyed records related to their investigation of Lin’s death, lending concerns of some sort of cover-up. Analysts and experts outside China have expressed a lot of skepticism about China’s version of events. This is not only because the investigative records were destroyed, but also because the explanation seems improbable and somewhat nonsensical.
However historians do agree that Lin was killed in a plane crash in Mongolia on 9/13/71. But they have never figured out how or why he would have flown to that location in the first place. Much of it makes no sense, and the details of Lin’s death remain a mystery to this day.
Come on back in a few days for the next installment, entitled Chapter 29: Successors.