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Shedding new light on a 50-year-old Chinese mystery

Yu Ruxin takes a fresh look at the death of Mao's former designated heir Lin Biao

The plane in which Lin Biao tried to escape to the Siberian city of Irkutsk crashed in the eastern Mongolian desert on Sept. 13, 1971. All nine on board were killed, including Lin Biao's wife, son and close aides. (Photo courtesy of Yu Ruxin and New Century Press)

HONG KONG -- Sept. 13 marks the 50th anniversary of the mysterious death of Lin Biao, who at the time was Chairman Mao Zedong's designated heir. Even after half a century, it remains one of the biggest enigmas of Chinese Communist Party history.

Lin's position as Mao's successor was written into the party's constitution at the ninth party congress in April 1969, in the midst of the Cultural Revolution. Acclaimed as Mao's "intimate comrade-in-arms and successor," Lin was elevated to the position of vice-chairman -- the undisputed No. 2 man, after Mao.

Just two and a half years later, Lin boarded a flight out of the coastal city of Shanhaiguan bound for the Siberian city of Irkutsk, then part of the Soviet Union, China's communist archrival -- but was killed when the plane crashed in the eastern Mongolian desert. Also on board were Lin's wife, Ye Qun, son Lin Liguo and several close aides.

It is now known as the "913 Incident," from the Sept. 13 date of the 1971 crash. Hong Kong-based Chinese historian Yu Ruxin, author of over 100 books and papers on the Cultural Revolution, has uncovered documents that shed new light on the crash, arguing that previous accounts were "not fully accurate and not fully based on facts."

In his new book "Through the Storm: The PLA in the Cultural Revolution," Yu says Lin decided to escape China after concluding that Mao had turned against him. The direct triggers were the failure of an attempt by Lin Liguo to overthrow Mao, which Lin Biao claimed he had no involvement in, as well as his hearing about speeches by Mao during a southern tour in August 1971.

Mao Zedong celebrates with the masses in Beijing's Tiananmen Square on Oct 1, 1966, the 17th anniversary of Communist Party rule. Bottom: Left, Mao Zedong, a smiling Lin Biao and a grumpy-looking Liu Shaoqi on Nov. 3, 1966. Liu died a violent death just three years later. Middle, prominent war hero and former Vice Premier Peng Dehuai, pictured in 1967, was not able to escape severe attacks during the Cultural Revolution. Right, Premier Zhou Enlai with Lin Biao's daughter Lin Liheng on Oct. 1, 1966, on the gate tower of Tiananmen. (Photos provided by Yu Ruxin and New Century Press)

"From reports on Mao's words during the southern tour, Lin had come to believe that Mao had completely lost trust in him," Yu told Nikkei Asia in a recent interview. The tide was already shifting, since Mao had openly discredited Lin's allies at the party plenum in August 1970, but the situation was now at a point where Lin felt that he could be purged at any time.

Yu's findings are quite different from the official party line.

According to prominent party historian Xue Qingchao, Lin was the leader of a counterrevolutionary faction that colluded with the Gang of Four that orchestrated the Cultural Revolution.

Further, Lin's appointment as Mao's undisputed successor in 1969 was done in an "abnormal" situation, when the party's decision-making processes were under the influence of a conspiracy led by Lin's faction -- a plot that was later upscaled to usurp the party leadership.

It was the failure of this conspiracy that forced Lin's escape and resulted in his death, according to the authorized narrative on the party's official website.

Thanks to scrupulous documentary evidence -- including a firsthand account by Lin's daughter Lin Liheng that was written immediately after her father's death and was submitted to the party as evidence in October 1971 -- Yu has managed to reconstruct the nine days leading to Lin's death, cross-checking with the official narrative, other Communist Party documents, court records, memoirs and interviews with people directly involved in the incident.

Deng Xiaoping, right, Hua Guofeng, center, and Ye Jianying celebrate the ousting of the Gang of Four on Aug. 1, 1977. Hua inherited the party chairmanship after Mao's death and played a fundamental role in the arrests of the four in collaboration with military heavyweights, including Ye. (Photo courtesy of Yu Ruxin and New Century Press)

Sticking to an approach of "letting the evidence speak for itself," especially when it comes to a politically sensitive event like this, Yu's two volumes include 1,354 pages of Chinese text with 2,421 footnotes.

This stance is reflected in his analysis of the plane crash itself, where Yu does not offer his own theory but cites various documents, including the official Mongolian government report, accounts by former Soviet diplomats and People's Liberation Army specialists.

Based on these sources, Yu rules out long-lingering rumors of a forced landing by Mongolian authorities, or that the plane was brought down by a Soviet missile attack, as well as suggestions that the plane might have crashed after someone fired a gun inside the plane.

What Yu does seem to support is the conclusions of the Mongolian report and the PLA specialist: that the pilot had to make an emergency landing for whatever reason, but the landing speed was too fast, ultimately sparking an explosion.

Yu is also skeptical of the various explanations as to why veteran pilot Pan Jingyin decided to try for an emergency landing. The mystery of the "black box" -- including whether the flight recording mechanism existed on that plane or not -- is still unresolved, but Yu doubts that it was collected by Soviet authorities after the crash.

One of the book's major highlights is Yu's meticulously documented description of the little-known role of the PLA in the decade-long sociopolitical turmoil of the Cultural Revolution.

"It is because of the very limited understanding of the military, as the military is like a black box, and it is not easy to study and investigate," said Yu, adding that Beijing's stance on information disclosure and a system in which the authorities unilaterally interpret history is not conducive to research on politically sensitive topics. "However, if you don't investigate the relationship between the military and the Cultural Revolution," Yu added, "you are only understanding part of what happened."

So, how did Yu do it?

After a research journey spanning more than four decades, much of that spent trawling the catalogs of rare booksellers and antiquities dealers all over the country, Yu says he didn't follow any special routes. Still, obtaining old documents and books is getting difficult these days. Yu said he started to feel the changes a "little bit over 10 years ago."

Not beholden to a university or think tank, Yu was able to finance his research through his real estate business in Guangzhou. Established academics are now paying tribute to Yu's achievements in tackling what is arguably the most tumultuous period of modern China's history.

Top: University students sent to the countryside for "re-education." This shot is from a farm under the People's Liberation Army's No. 4 Division farm in Kuche, in the northeastern region of Xinjiang, and was taken between September 1970 and April 1972. Bottom: Suzhou, one of the oldest cities in the country and now a bustling business hub in the vicinity of Shanghai, was in the midst of violent struggle in August 1967. (Photos courtesy of Yu Ruxin and New Century Press)

"This work is undoubtedly worth noting in the realms of historic studies on the Cultural Revolution," said Tang Shaojie, professor of philosophy at leading mainland school Tsinghua University, in one review of Yu's latest book. Praising Yu as an "outstanding expert" in the field and describing the work as a "breakthrough," Tang gave Yu high marks for his detailed revelations of the PLA's functions during the Cultural Revolution. "The efforts and accomplishments by private groups and individual scholars far, far exceed the official work by the party historians," Tang said.

The book's publisher, Bao Pu, highlighted the significance of this work in light of today's political situation in China. "The seed of instability and the looming crisis is still embedded in succession politics," he told Nikkei Asia, as "people have probably forgotten that the party has not resolved the ultimate power transition problem."

Bao, one of the few remaining independent publishers in Hong Kong who deals with sensitive topics of modern Chinese history and politics, said he only printed 1,000 copies, knowing that the book will not be carried by the city's pro-Beijing book merchants, especially after the introduction of the national security law last June.

While the fundamental lessons of the Cultural Revolution were to avoid a personality cult, adopt the principle of collective leadership and place term limits on individual leaders, according to Yu's book a personality cult is a form of political exchange in which subordinates seek higher positions and power by fawning and showing loyalty.

It also involves an exchange of one's soul -- personal characteristics are sacrificed in exchange for a sense of collective security and accomplishment. "It is also about surrendering independent thoughts and free spirits while substituting the brain of the leader for the brains of the whole party and the people," wrote Yu.

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