Salient. Victoria University Student Newspaper. Volume 36, Number 21. 5th September 1973
Lin Piao: A smile to the face — a stab in the back
Lin Piao: A smile to the face — a stab in the back
This week we are continuing our series of reports on life in the People's Republic of China with a report sent from Peking by Wilfred Burchett about the downfall of Lin Piao, a key figure during the Cultural Revolution and once the number two man in the Chinese leadership.
For the past two years the fate of Lin Piao has been the subject of much speculation in the western press. While it has been generally known that Lin died in September 1971 while trying to flee by plane to the Soviet Union after failing in a plot against Chairman Mao, the background to Lin's plot and the details of it were unclear.
Last week the 10th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party expelled Lin and another former member of the five-man Secretariat of the CCP, Chen Po-ta, who also disappeared in September 1971.
In his report to the Congress on behalf of the party's Central Committee Chou Enlai said the "Lin Piao Anti-Party Clique" had attempted to restore capitalism domestically, and to align with the Soviet Union internationally.
Referring to the clique's practice of pretending to be Mao's most loyal supporters while secretly plotting against him Chou En-lai said: "They never appeared without a copy of Mao's Quotations in their hands. They never spoke without shouting 'Long Live!' They smiled to your face, but stabbed you in the back."
Chou En-lai's report substantially confirms Burchett's story written before the Congress, although Chou mentioned that Lin launched his plot against Mao on September 8, 1971. This fact suggests that there was probably an atmosphere of suspicion surrounding Lin by September 12 when, as Burchett relates, several minor functionaries involved in the plot backed out and others tried to prevent Lin's escape.
A massive dossier on Lin Piao's waverings ambitions, and feudal type plotting, has been under discussion all over China in the past weeks. Some lurid details on the private life of Lin Piao, his wife Yeh Chun and his son Lin Li-kue, proclaimed a "genius" by his father, are included. But the essence of the charges against Lin Piao, the former Minister of Defense, are similar to those against Liu Shao-Chi. Lin is described as a political swindler, "a capitalist-roader" and of "having illicit relations with foreign powers."
The report shatters the image of Lin Paio, created by himself and his closest followers. The image of Lin as the "closest companion in arms" and "unwavering supporter" of Mao is repudiated. One of Mao's most famous articles, "A Single Spark can Start a Prairie Fire", the report recalls was in fact a letter of criticism addressed to Lin Piao in 1930 because of his vacillating and pessimistic attitudes at moments of crisis.
The portrait presented in the report is of someone continually wandering from the "straight and narrow" and being pulled back into line by Mao Tsetung: a Lin Piao repeatedly promising to correct his errors but in fact never really changing his basic ideas. That Lin Piao had his merits as a field commander is not denied. "Although he turned out to be a traitor, he also did many good things," a high government official told me.
Examples of the lengths to which Lin Piao's closest supporters would go to fabricate the "closest disciple" image include, the report notes, two recent paintings which falsify history. One was of the famous episode of the meeting up of the Red Army forces headed by Mao Tsetung with those headed by Gen. Chu Teh in Kiangsi Province at the beginning of the Long March in 1935. In the painting it is Lin Piao who leads the second column. Chu Teh is nowhere to be seen! The report points out that Lin Piao followed Chu Teh, when he mistakenly decided to return to Hunan instead of joining Mao in the Long March. (Mao went after Chu Teh and persuaded him to join him in the Long March.)
Over-weening Personal Ambitions
The second painting shows Lin Piao at Mao Tsetung's side at the Tsunyi conference at which Mao Tsetung was elected, after a heated debate, secretary general of the Communist Party's Central Committee. In fact, the report notes that Lin Piao was a back-bencher who never opened his mouth during the debate and voted against Mao. Details of these falsifications are judged necessary to expose because they help explain the over-weening personal ambitions that pushed Lin to the ultimate crime of the attempted assassination of Chairman Mao on the night of September 12, 1971. The assassination attempt was followed by Lin's fatal effort to flee to the Soviet Union via Ulan Bator in the early hours of the following morning.
That Mao Tsetung was suspicious of Lin Paio's machinations for a considerable time is clear from this remarkable letter he sent to his wife, Chiang Ching, on July 8, 1966. Extracts from the letter were published by Le Monde last December 2, 1972. Responsible officials in Peking admit that, apart from reserves on a few points of translation, the letter is authentic — a rare case of confirmation that a text originally leaked by Chiang Kaishek's intelligence services in Taiwan, is correct.
"Evil geniuses surge forth spontaneously," Mao wrote, according to the Le Monde version. "Pre-determined by their class origins they cannot act other than they do. The Central Committee is in a hurry to distribute the text of a speech by our friend. I am prepared to agree to this. In this speech he particularly referred to the problem of a coup d'etat."
The speech in question was a report given by Lin Piao at an enlarged meeting of the Political Bureau of the party's Central Committee on May 18, 1965, in which Lin Piao vehemently denounced Peng Chen, then in charge of the Peking Staff Committee, Lo Jui-ch'ing, then Chief of Stuff of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) who was later removed from that office that year and other top-ranking leaders, Lin accused them of involvement in a murderous coup attempt against Mao.
"Never has such language been used," Mao continued and it is clear that he had doubts both as to the alleged plot and Lin Piao's motives. "Certain of his ideas greatly disturb me. I could never have believed that my little books could have such magic power. Now that he has so praised them, the whole country will follow his example....It is the first time in my life that I am in agreement with the others on the essence of a problem against my will....."
Mao then quotes from a Chinese classic. "The world being in need of a hero, enabled a type like Liu Pang to make his name..." Then Mao warns his wife about her own association with Lin Piao: "You must pay great attention to his weak points, his defects and his mistakes I do not know how often I have spoken about this. I spoke of it again in April in Shanghai. What I have said may seem treason. Do not antiparty elements talk just like this? But to look at it that way would be incorrect. The difference between what I say and what traitors say is that I am speaking of my own reactions whilst the traitors aim at overthrowing our party and myself."
Mao is clearly referring here to Liu Shao-chi and his supporters, the fight against whom was reaching its climax at this time. He explains why, at a time when the cultural revolution was reaching its climax, it was difficult for him to speak out openly against Lin Piao.
"At the present moment, all those on the left speak the same language. If what I write you was divulged publicly it would look as if I were pouring cold water on them and thus aiding the right. Our task at present is to partially overthrow the right — not totally because that is impossible — inside the party and throughout the country. In seven or eight years, we will launch another movement to clean up the evil geniuses...." (By his ill-fated coup attempt in 1971 Lin Piao hastened this latter process by two or three years.)
Rivals for Power
The report makes it clear that Lin Piao was a most enthusiastic supporter of the cultural revolution because it enabled him to eliminate a very serious rival for power Liu Shao-chi, and many others, while reinforcing his public and party image as the closest and most devoted alter ego of Chairman Mao. Similarly when Liu and a number of other important "rightists" and "capitalist roaders" were eliminated, Lin Piao used the so-called May 16 Movement in what at first seemed an "ultra-leftist" movement to eliminate as many others as possible, starting with his most serious rival left. Premier Chou En-Lai.
When the ultra-leftists stormed the Foreign Ministry in mid-1967 and viciously denounced the Foreign Minister. Marshal Chen Yi, it was Chou En-lai who was the real target. Chen Yi fought back like a lion, valiantly defended by Chou En-lai, but Chen Yi went down fighting and was eclipsed for a certain time. Then the ultra-leftists, directed from behind by Lin Piao, turned their guns directly on Chou En-lai, but behind Chou En-lai stood squarely Mao Tsetung and this was too big a target to take on openly.
Chou En-lai was very briefly eclipsed but when his detractors demanded that he appear before them, Mao said, "Agreed, as long as I stand with him."
All the above is part of the essential back-ground to understanding the dramatics of Sept, 12-13, 1971 But there are two other essential links in the chain of events.
At the Ninth Party Congress in April 1969, Mao rejected out-of-hand and into to the report that Lin Piao had prepared. Another report was drafted which won Mao's approval but on the question of having Lin Piao named as his successor it was apparently the second time in Mao's life that he was "in agreement with the others on the essence of a problem against my will." Doubtless Mao could not afford an open confrontation with Lin before the dust of the cultural revolution had settled, in view of the key role played by the army.
But at the Second Central Committee Plenum of the Ninth Congress, the Mao-Lin confrontation broke out into the open, as far as party affairs were concerned. Lin Piao's supporters with his wife Yeh Chun, the leading activist in pushing from behind, proposed that Lin Piao be appointed President of the Republic — a post left vacant after Liu Shao-chi's disgrace. Mao opposed this and delivered a very strong criticism of Lin for his over-impatience in his bid for the leadership. Doubtless this will be a passionately interesting section of the report, if it is published verbatim.
Lin Piao seems to have decided, probably correctly, that his hopes for supreme power were ended. So from the heir-apparent, as he appeared in photos and paintings with his perpetually wagging little red book, Lin turned into a classical, feudal-type conspirator from that moment on. Some elements of the drama played out in 1971 have been revealed piecemeal but the full, complete account goes as follows, as confirmed by most authoritative sources in Peking.
In the late summer of 1971, Mao made a tour of some of the vital military regions, explaining the sort of conspiracy which he already knew that his "heir-apparent" was hatching, securing the loyalty of commanders of key military units.
Lin had used the May 16 Movement to discredit veteran Marshals such as Ho Lung, Chen Yi and others. He had also put his own men in many of the key posts at the top where it was relatively easy to guard the secrecy of the plot. It was not the same with the commanders of field units. As the deputy commander of the PLA's 1 79 division stationed in the Nanking area told me in regard to Lin Piao's influence; "Ours is a people's army created and led by Chairman Mao. It was so, is so and will always be so...." In other words, Lin could only resort to a top-level plot. In any confrontation of loyalties towards himself or Mao Tsetung. Lin knew he would never stand a chance.
On Sept. 12, 1971, Mao was returning to Peking from Shanghai by train. Lin had arranged to blow up the train somewhere north of Nanking. If anything went wrong, a second attempt would be made further along the line.
Lin seemed to have been impressed by the way the Japanese blew up the Manchurian warlord, Marshal Chang Tso-lin in his train in December 1931, thus precipitating the Japanese takeover of Manchuria, as there is a reference to this in some captured documents relating to the plot.
Lin however ran into just those sort of difficulties that could be anticipated once details of the plot had to be diffused to lower-down operatives. The officer in charge of the first bomb attempt had misgivings and proved unable to perform such a task.
Mao travelled over the first charge safely, unaware of any danger. Warnings were flashed to page 13 Peking, as a result of the officer's misgivings. A few station before the second charge was due to be exploded, the train was halted. Mao was urged to descend rapidly and move into a car, ordered by Chou En-lai to bring him by road to Peking with an appropriate escort. Thus the first two assassination attempts were foiled.
Later that night Chou-En-lai learned that Lin Piao (still not suspected as being behind the assassination attempts) had ordered a couple of Trident passenger planes to an airfield near Peitaho, a seaside resort some distance east of Peaking where in Piao, his wife and "genius" son and some top staff people, were supposed to be holidaying.
Lin had used his conviction about the "genius" qualities of hit son, Lin Li-kuo. to secure the son's rapid promotion to Deputy Director of Operations of the Chinese Air Force at the ripe age of 24. His "expertise" may well have been a decisive factor in the disaster that followed.
Chou En-Lai's Phone Call
A daughter of Lin Piao from his first marriage. Lin Do Do, told Chou En-lai that the family was leaving on a night flight for an unknown destination. Chou En-lai still not linking Lin with a plot, telephoned to Peitaho to ask whether this was so. According to an account I heard from a high cadre, his Intention was simply to advise that Lin should not take off on any night inspection trips because of the imperfections of facilities for night take offs and landings.
Lin Piao was at a concert but his wife Yeh Chun took the call and assured Premier Chou that he was entirely mistaken. She said they had no intentions of a night flight or any other flights. Chou En-lal't suspicion were aroused and he immediately issued an order that all planes ware to be grounded unlets authorisation was produced and signed by three people. Including Lin Piao and himself.
Another incident in that drama-filled night was the appearance of an officer at Chairman Mao's Peking head-quarters, urgently demanding an audience with Mao to deliver a "safe-hand" message of the utmost urgency. Enough suspicions went aroused by that time to arrest and search the officer and it was found that the "safe-hand" message was an order to assassinate Mao on the spot, which the officer speedily admitted.
Meanwhile, Yeh Chun had rushed panic-stricken to the concert hall to warn her husband that Mao was evidently very much alive; that Chou was privy to their flight plans and they must leave immediately. Within a very short, time a convoy of cars was hurtling through the night towards the Peitaho airport, with Lin Piao's in the lead. A guard in the cat who objected to what was obviously an unseemly flight, was shot by Lin Li-kuo and pushed out of the speeding car. (He was later rescued still alive, with an incredible story to tell.)
At the airport, Lin was confronted with the Chou En-lai order. He bluffed his way around that by saying the order was garbled and that authorisations were valid if signed by one of the three persons named. So he immediately signed his own death warrant.
One plane was fuelled. Whether the tanks were completely filled is not clear but one can assume that in the hurried escape no great margin of fuel was taken on for the first leg of the flight to Ulan Bator, in Outer Mongolia. As the plane started to taxi, a suspicious member Of the fuelling crew parked a huge fuel truck square across the runway, The plane had to make a detour over rough ground and in order to take off on what was left of the runway, had to make as nearly a vertical takeoff as possible with the fuel-consuming boosters fully exploited.
The plane, later ran out of fuel and crashed in Outer Mongolia, killing everyone who was still alive by the time it crashed. It teems there was a gunfight on board, according to leaks from Soviet sources which say bullet wounds were found in some of the chaired bodies.
After the plane took off, a helicopter with three of Lin's top staff officers and several cases of documents also took to the air. It circled several times around Peitaho airport until the pilot was shot for refusing to follow the direction taken by Lin Piao. By the time the helicopter started on course, fighter planes were airbound and forced it to land. It transpired later that the three officers were pledged to destroy the documents and commit suicide in the event of plans being thwarted. Two officers did shoot and kill themselves as militia-men raced towards the helicopter. The third succeeded only in inflicting a headwound. He was captured and the documents, including some revealing diaries of Lin Piao and his wife were seized intact.
I have bean able to check and re-check all the above elements of the "Lin Pioo case" from authoritative sources but there is one tantalising detail which I was not able to clear up. Did Lin Piao take Wu Fa-hsien, the then head of the Air Force, the head of the Navy and other officers of the general staff with him, as is generally rumoured? One of my Informants assured me that they were to leave on a second plane but were all arrested and the second plane never did take off. This seems plausible as it is hardly likely that Lin Piao would have all his general staff officers at his side during the Peitaho "holiday" and it was so planned that they would join him at the time for the original departure time — probably just about dawn — in case the assassination attempts failed.
This detail end the question of whether the Soviet Union was informed and ready to receive the fleeing plotters will only become clear when the official report is available.
If this account seems to reflect only a personal obsession of Lin Piao to seize power, Chinese party members and the public are encouraged to see it as part of the eternal "struggle between two lines," a sort of twin Liu Shao-chi's plot to divert the Chinese revolution into a restoration of bourgeois capitalism. However, the drive for personal power emerges as a much clearer additional motive in the case of Lin Piao than in that of Liu Shao-chi.
In any case it is one more extraoidinary episode in the drama of the Chinese revolution.