The Cautionary Tale of China’s Lin Biao

Stratfor Global Intelligence, 13.09.2015
Thomas Vien

"The revolution is like Saturn, she devours her own children," says doomed French revolutionary Georges Danton in Georg Buchner's 1835 play Danton's Death. The Chinese revolution — and its aftershocks throughout the period of Mao Zedong's rule — was no exception. On Sept. 13, 1971, a Chinese Trident 1E airliner crashed in Mongolia's Gobi Desert, killing everyone on board. It was not a scheduled flight. One of the passengers was Lin Biao, one of China's most respected military officers and a key architect of China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution. At the time, he was Mao Zedong's second-in-command and handpicked heir.

According to the official Chinese narrative, Lin was fleeing to the Soviet Union after a failed coup or assassination attempt on Mao when his airplane ran out of fuel. Nonetheless, there remains significant speculation as to what actually happened on the flight. Many believe that Lin, whose political senses were very sharp, was merely fleeing an impending purge of military leaders, who had gained too much power for Mao's liking, and that his crash was no accident. In his later years, former U.S. President Richard Nixon remembered asking of Lin's fate during his first meeting with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai. Zhou, he recalled, merely said with a little smile that Lin left on a trip to Moscow but disappeared en route. Although the premier declined to explain further, Nixon suspected that Lin had a little help making his unscheduled landing. Whatever the exact nature of the crash and the circumstances directly leading to it, what is clear is that Lin ran afoul of Mao — or else he would not have tried to flee in the first place.

China has changed much in the 44 years since Lin's death. However, Lin's career and rapid fall from grace amid a recentralization of power is still relevant for modern China under President Xi Jinping, who is now engaged in an anti-corruption purge that is intended to eliminate all possible challengers to his power and to discipline the bureaucracy.

Red Army Commander

Like many of the early revolutionaries of the Chinese Communist Party, Lin Biao started as an officer in the Chinese Nationalist Party's army. Immediately after graduating from China's famed Whampoa Military Academy in 1926, Lin participated in Chiang Kai-shek's Northern Expedition, which led to the nominal unification of China under the Nationalist Party. Lin's involvement in the Northern Expedition catapulted him from cadet to colonel within a year of his graduation.

Despite an early start in the Nationalist Party, Lin's career was truly made in the Communist Party, which he joined in 1927. He participated in the Nanchang Uprising, in which large formations of the Nationalist Army mutinied, formally giving rise to the Chinese Red Army (later becoming the People's Liberation Army). Lin soon became one of its ablest commanders. He mastered the art of guerrilla warfare, helping fight off the many eradication campaigns that the Nationalist Party launched against the ragtag Communists in the early 1930s. When Nationalist pressure intensified to unbearable levels, he followed Mao on the Long March to northwestern China in 1935, which started with 130,000 men and ended with about 7,000. The revolutionary credentials he built in these early days effectively made him a founding father of both the Chinese Communist Party and the People's Liberation Army, giving him tremendous political capital in his later career.

Lin played only a minor role in the long Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) that included World War II, but the resumption of the Chinese civil war between Nationalists and Communists in 1946 demonstrated that his military skills had not dulled. Lin and his Fourth Field Army destroyed the large Nationalist armies sent to Manchuria. By the time the Nationalists were defeated and exiled and the People's Republic of China was formed in 1949, Lin's Fourth Field Army had firm control of both Manchuria and Guangdong province. The officers of the Fourth Field Army were to be his closest supporters for the rest of his career.

Career Politician

After 1949, Lin never personally led armies into battle again. Offered the opportunity to lead the Chinese People's Volunteer Army that was sent to Korea in October 1950, he declined on grounds of poor health. Fellow revolutionary titan Peng Dehuai commanded the expeditionary army instead. Although Lin remained solidly associated with the military, being honored as one of China's ten Great Marshals in 1955, he found his true calling as a politician. Unlike his fellow marshal Peng Dehuai, whose fiery temper and straightforwardness brought him into conflict with Mao, Lin knew how to read political winds — and shift with them, too. He recognized early on that Mao was the main power that mattered and decided that the best way to get power was to hang on to Mao.

In the Lushan Conference of 1959, Mao faced a strong challenge to his leadership. The Great Leap Forward, an unrealistic attempt to use mass mobilization to catch up to British and U.S. industrial production in a few short years, had led to widespread famine. Mao's legitimacy was in question. Peng led the opposition, and suggested in his characteristically forthright manner that the old military hands such as he and Mao needed to step back and allow professional economic planners to take the reins of policy.

Faced with this challenge from one of China's top military commanders (the hero of the Korean War, no less), Mao needed someone on his side whose stature in the military was equal to Peng's. Mao summoned Lin to the conference. Understanding the power dynamics at work and seeing the opportunity for gain, Lin came out against Peng. Peng was condemned as an "anti-party" element and was purged. Lin replaced him as defense minister in September 1959 and took over the military. He began a large campaign of Maoist political indoctrination in the military, understanding that it would please Mao. As part of this indoctrination campaign, Lin created the Little Red Book, which would become an icon of the Cultural Revolution that was soon to follow.

In 1966, Mao felt that China was lacking in revolutionary spirit. He felt that the party bureaucracy, exemplified by his second-in-command Liu Shaoqi, an orthodox planner, was leading China to stagnation. Worse, he felt that the bureaucracy was dragging its feet in implementing his edicts. He decided to launch a campaign to shake the bureaucracy's hold on power: the Cultural Revolution. Mao enlisted Lin, knowing that he needed control over the People's Liberation Army to both shield himself and keep it from protecting the bureaucracy. Mao promoted Lin to second-in-command of the Communist Party, demoting Liu to the No. 8 position on the Politburo. During this time, it was very common to see Lin by Mao's side in official propaganda illustrations, emphasizing that he was the heir apparent.

As part of his newest revolution, Mao mobilized brigades of China's students (at everything from the college level down to the middle school level) to make war on thoughts that were deemed reactionary. These youths, who became known as the Red Guards, roamed the country, seizing control of government offices, destroying countless cultural artifacts and terrorizing the population. Under Lin's command, the People's Liberation Army stepped aside, exposing the party bureaucracy to direct physical attack. The Red Guards, with some prodding from factions in Beijing, dismantled provincial governments and central government ministries and killed many leading cadres who were identified as reactionaries. Among those killed during this time were Liu, Mao's former deputy, and Peng. Lin took an active role fanning the flames of the Cultural Revolution, using it to build his personal power and purge many of his revolutionary comrades that disagreed with his policies.

By late 1967, the Red Guards had caused extensive damage to China's ruling institutions, but nothing emerged in their place. Though Beijing ruled in name, the reality was that China stood on the brink of anarchy. State institutions were non-functional. Roving bands of Red Guards, who by then started pillaging state arsenals, made war on one another with automatic weapons and artillery. Fearing that the process would soon be beyond control, Mao demobilized the Red Guards in early 1968 — a task requiring the involvement of the army, and by extension Lin. "Revolutionary Committees" that included popular representatives, party cadres and the People's Liberation Army were formed to administer the country and fill the power vacuum the Red Guards had created. The military was the only institution left untouched by the Red Guards, so in practice the People's Liberation Army ran most of the country. Military influence in local governance mirrored the military's representation on the Communist Party's elite Central Committee — half of which was made up of People's Liberation Army members by 1969.

Lin's fortunes, which had been growing during the Cultural Revolution, took an abrupt turn. By 1969, Mao felt that military control over the country had grown too strong. As the last institution standing, it (and again, by extension Lin) had become a personal challenge to his power. Compounding China's weak domestic position was a worsening strategic environment. China and the Soviet Union were at war in all but name, fighting a border skirmish on the Ussuri River in 1969. The skirmish demonstrated that nearly a decade of political training under Lin had taken a toll on the army's fighting prowess. In response to rising tensions, the Soviets moved nearly a million men to China's borders and began contemplating nuclear strikes on China. Mao hoped to bolster China's weak position by building an alliance with the United States, which was then fighting in Vietnam. Lin intensely opposed this plan.

Mao decided that Lin Biao had outlasted his usefulness and began taking steps to undermine Lin's hold on the People's Liberation Army. He moved the elements of the Fourth Field Army from Beijing to Manchuria (ostensibly to defend against the Soviets) and removed Lin's key supporters from power in late 1970. Mao also criticized Lin on visits to high-level military commanders to secure support and emphasize that Mao ultimately was in charge of the guns — a pattern familiar to watchers of China's modern anti-corruption campaigns. The recovering party apparatus, led by Zhou Enlai, began to join in attacking Lin.

The politically astute Lin recognized the signs of an impending purge and tried to layer ever-more-effusive praise on Mao, but to no avail. The hard fact was that Mao and the Party decided that the military's time was up. Lin was at best a stumbling block and at worst a threat. In September 1971, Lin tried to save himself — possibly by a preemptive strike and certainly by a preemptive flight — and met his mysterious demise. It was a meteoric fall for someone who was seen as the most likely candidate to be China's second leader. More than 1,000 of Lin's supporters were purged in the wake of what became known as the "Lin Biao Incident," and the People's Liberation Army as an institution was disgraced by its close identification with Lin. This allowed the party apparatus to once again take power.

The Struggle Re-Emerges

Lin's story demonstrates that even at the pinnacle of power in Mao's China, it was possible to crash abruptly. The intensity of the often life-or-death factional struggles in Beijing led to rapid policy swings consistent only in ideological radicalism. Horrified by the excesses of Maoist China, Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues, who faced the monumental task of reconstructing China after decades of misrule, diluted the power that had heretofore been concentrated in Mao by building a consensus-based decision-making system. This was followed by setting an unwritten rule: Those who were losing power struggles would not be in mortal danger (at most, they would be put under house arrest — merciful compared to the fates of purged leaders during the Cultural Revolution). Deng, who needed to build a broad coalition, was willing to tolerate the presence of other power centers, so long as they did not pose a direct challenge to his rule.

This consensus-based system is now breaking down because of gridlock and inertia. By its very nature, this system is meant as a moderating force, resistant to strong course corrections that may be necessary to save China's ailing economy. With the breakdown of consensus politics, much of the charity that post-Deng leaders have shown to their political adversaries has also disappeared. The purge of Chongqing Party Secretary Bo Xilai and his patron Zhou Yongkang strongly echoes Lin's final days. Like Lin, they had built up a considerable power base and were allegedly plotting to murder Xi and seize power. Both were put on trial for the crime of being involved in "non-organizational political activities" and received life sentences. The very public announcements of the punishments meted out to these two (and the purged Central Military Commission vice chairmen Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong) suggest that Xi will give no quarter to any alternate power center that could resemble Lin's. What appears clear is that in a time of economic and political crisis, the Chinese Communist Party is showing signs of reverting to some Maoist precedents, and when power disputes emerge, they are likely to be stormy.

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