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Salient. Official Newspaper of Victoria University of Wellington Students Association. Volume 40, No. 5. 27 March 1977

Whatever happened to Lin Piao? — The Rise and Fall of Lin Piao — Pelican

page 12

Whatever happened to Lin Piao?

The Rise and Fall of Lin Piao


Photo of Mao Tse-tung and Lin Piao

Lin Piao died in an aircrash on the morning of September 13, 1971 while fleeing China to the Soviet Union. A coup attempt to assasinate Mao Tse-tung and establish him and his followers in power had failed.

This book, which relies extensively on high level Chinese documents, details the precise events which led to Lin Piao's flight and death. Its appearance is of some significance as China has just witnessed similar coup attempt by an 'ultra-left' faction.

For people who wish to understand the recent events in China this book offers valuable insights into the political processes and how such strong differences can manifest themselves at the top level of leadership.

The Cultural Revolution

The story of Lin Piao cannot be understood without coming to grips with the essential features of socialist society.

A socialist society is not monolithic, within it many struggles occur. In China these struggles achieved their most comprehensive form during the Cultural Revolution where virtually every Chinese was actively involved in either shoring up the old order or attacking it. Views from the far right to the far left found currency and the struggle ranged from wall posters to armed assaults and guerrilla warfare.

In fact China was going through a second revolution.

In 1949 the feudal and imperialist order had been overthrown. During the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) the economic basis of the socialism had been laid with the reorganisation of agriculture and industry and the accelerating of economic development. The Chinese people led the Great Leap familiarising themselves with new techniques and initiating many changes.

The Cultural Revolution was the next stage. It involved the revolutionising of the superstructure of society—education, culture, ways of thinking, the whole Party and state apparatus. During the Great Leap splits in the Chinese Communist Party had become apparent and it was clear that a large section of the Party, which followed the Soviet model of development, would oppose the revolutionisation of the superstructure.

Thus the most important aspect of the Cultural Revolution became the overthrow of these top bureaucrats who blocked the thoroughgoing transformation of Chinese society. It was the Chinese people who, responding to Mao's call, attacked and deposed the Party bureaucrats and made the victory of the Cultural Revolution possible.

The contradiction between the mass of the people and a few top bureaucrats in the Party was the key element of the Cultural Revolution and in one form or another characterises the whole period of socialist society.

Lin Piao

Lin Piao had been a fine tactician in his early army days. But politically he often vacillated and feared for the success of the revolution. Van Ginneken quotes from a letter Mao wrote to Lin in 1930 to counter his pessimism:

"Pessimism is the world outlook of the declining landlord and capitalist classes. Those who cling to such an outlook always overestimate the strength of the people. They never have faith in the masses and do not rely on them, and they do not have faith in or rely on the Party. When they meet temporary difficulties or when the revolution is at a low ebb, they waver, run away, become traitors or resort to adventurism and putschism. When the revolution advances smoothly or is at a high tide, they often take an ultra - 'Left' stand, regard all successes as their own and push a reactionary line that is ultra 'Left' or 'Left' in form but Right in essence. Persons clinging to this reactionary world outlook will inevitably set themselves against the masses, keep back the tide of history and become reactionaries vainly trying to stop the earth from rotating". (The letter has become famous under the title "A Single Spark can start a Praire Fire").

Lin voted against Mao at the Party meeting in 1935 where he was elected to lead the Party.

The Rise

As a result of the purge of Peng Te huai during the Great Leap Forward Lin found himself Minister of Defence. In this post he began a characteristic process—he accumulated in the top positions immediately below him people who were personal favourites first and politically capable second.

Many of these people were to make severe political mistakes in the future. The coup attempt itself was planned by people Lin had helped to bring to power.

Lin's style of work also became clear early on. It was only through the medium of his followers that the outside world impinged upon him. In particular all information, reports and people were vetoed by Lin's wife before they could reach Lin. Lin remained aloof and accepted this state of affairs and consequently became increasingly divorced from the Chinese people and the rest of the leadership of the Party. Right from the beginning Lin's style of work encouraged the formation of a revisionist faction centred around himself.

Soviet trrops on the Chinese border—1969.

Soviet trrops on the Chinese border—1969.

Lin and the Cultural Revolution

In the preliminary stages before the Cultural Revolution Lin supported Mao and helped educate the army for its future role of bringing order and supporting the left after the initial breakthroughs in the Cultural Revolution had been made.

It was to be the intervention of the army in the Cultural Revolution that which secured the rise of Lin to no. 2 in the Party behind Mao. Helping his rise was the total disorganisation of the Party apparatus everywhere except inside the army itself where it was mostly under his firm central control. Also helping was the ultraleftism which became on the major problems in the restoration of order after the Cultural Revolution's first phase. Lin's followers had played a major part in inciting the ultra-left and Lin rose in standing as they attacked Chou En-lai and others who stood in his way.


Lin's grasp of theory was never great and he often vacillated as his followers committed more and more errors. The Chief of Staff of the armed forces was replaced a number of times by the Party as was the director of the General Political Department of the army. But Lin managed to escape criticism for his complicity in their mistakes.

In the propaganda field both he and his followers encouraged the personality cult of Mao (and simultaneously Lin himself) underestimated the role of the masses and were often dogmatic. They contributed to the continuance of the sectarianism between left groups that stooped the formation of new organs of state power and the re-establishment of the Party until well after the end of the main phase of the Cultural Revolution.

In one case they incited a campaign of attacking 'capitalist roaders' in the army (as the gang of four were to do in 1975 for the same ends) in order to get rid of all those who disagreed with them. The result was that armed violence broke out in many areas as ultra-lefts battled with army units. In key provinces for national defense this campaign destroyed the organisation of defence. In one province opposite Taiwan the campaign against the 'capitalist roaders' was taken up by the Taiwanese radio. The campaign soon stopped but the implications of this unrestricted campaign were clear.

Instead Lin adopted ruthless organisation means to develop his central control of the army and purge his opponents. This incited much distrust in Lin among the Party leadership and marked one of the first steps to his fall.

But first came the apogee of Lin's power—the Ninth Party Congress in 1969.

The Ninth Congress—1969

The army still contained the main organised section of the Party and although a far greater number of delegates from worker and peasant origins appeared at this Congress than at its pre-deccessor Lin was able to dominate many sections of it. Particularly he was able to write into the Party Constitution that he was the chosen successor of Mao and his faithful follower.

But by the second meeting of the new Central Committee the differences between Lin Piao's faction and the rest of the leadership had become irreconcilable.

The Fall

Lin now felt strong enough to openly oppose the general line of the Party. Two attacks among others were launched.

Firstly, Lin wanted to build up the army. He wanted it extended further into society with parallel organisations to all major societal institutions. This was a direct challenge to the leading role of the Party. He also wanted a massive increase in the means for fighting modern warfare. This would have meant a dislocation between a highly modernised defence industry and a more backward generally industry. Mao believed the two should march in step.

Secondly. Lin believed that the US and Japan were China's major enemies. But the border in-cedents and the case of Czechoslovakia had demonstrated that in fact the Soviet Union was the main threat. Lin opposed the breaking of China's diplomatic isolation which was to be a means of combating this threat and also a substitute for extreme modernisation of the army.

But Lin found no support outside his circle. Mao and Chou En-lai gained support. During or just after the second meeting of the Ninth Central Committee Lin's most powerful follower Chen Po-ta was purged for ultra-leftism. Lin was now trying various transparent schemes to increase further his standing in the party but his failures were increasing.

In the end the coup was planned. It was based on the assassination of Mao and the ascension to power of Lin. It is possible that the impetus for this came from Lin's followers rather than Lin himself. But once it started going wrong (it was launched on September 8 1971) Lin was inextricably involved. He fled China on September 13 1971 with most of his close followers before the other Party leaders were aware of what was happening. He died in a plane crash in the Soviet dependency of Mongolia the same day.

The Soviet Union which has a vested interest in disproving the 'official' story has never denied the story of the crash. Also the book makes clear that it was not until the announcement of the finding of the plane crash by the Mongolians at the end of September that the Party leadership in Peking knew what had happened to Lin Piao.


Many people wonder why it is that so many top officials in the Chinese Communist Party turn out to be capitalist roaders. Briefly I would like to list some reasons.

Firstly the enemy within is always more dangerous than the enemy without. Engels said in a letter to August Bebel in 1882:

"The development of the proletariat proceeds everywhere amidst internal struggles...And when, like Marx and myself, one has fought harder all one's life long against the alleged socialists than against anyone else (for we only regarded the bourgeoisie as a class and hardly ever involved ourselves in conflicts with individual bourgeois), one cannot greatly grieve that the inevitable struggle has broken out..."

When the proletariat has seized power these differences within the left become all the more important because state power and the whole social system are under their control. Wrong policies have more far-reaching and potentially dangerous effects.

Secondly, the Chinese realise that it is important to have a party that embraces as many points of view as possible which can be reconciled with their main tasks at the time. Such differences are deemed non-antagonistic. When the tasks of the party change and or the differences extend to the major tasks then, and only then, do the Chinese examine these differences and decide whether they have become antagonistic (i.e. irreconcilable).

Thirdly, socialist society is not perfect. It is a transitional form between capitalism and communism. In it major differences of an economic nature between workers and peasants, town and country and mental and manual labour can only slowly be resolved. Differences in income and life style and the existence of bourgeois right in the fields of distribution and exchange also exist. These inequalities, which are hangovers from capitalism form the economic basis for the restoration of capitalism. In the ideological and political sphere, international pressure (particularly revisionism) and the continuance of old ways of thinking allow bourgeois politics to continue. This latter point was recognised in the campaign to join the criticism of Lin Piao with an examination of Confucian thought. The ideas of Confucious still find currency in China and thus make it easier for people like Lin Piao to rise to high position.

Finally, the story of Lin Piao's rise and fall gives an accurate picture of class struggle in socialist China. Particularly it shows how the ultraleft pose as great a threat to socialism as the right-wing and that at times they are much harder to identify as their left words cover up their right essence.

Reviewed by Bruce Robinson