Lin Biao ( December 5, 1907 – September 13, 1971) was a Marshal of the People’s Republic of China who was pivotal in the Communist victory in the Chinese Civil War, especially in Northeast China. Lin was the general who commanded the decisive Liaoshen and Pingjin Campaigns, in which he co-led the Manchurian Field Army to victory and led the People’s Liberation Army into Beijing.
He crossed the Yangtze River in 1949, decisively defeating the Kuomintang and taking control of the coastal provinces in Southeast China. He ranked third among the Ten Marshals. Zhu De and Peng Dehuai were considered senior to Lin, and Lin ranked directly ahead of He Long and Liu Bocheng.
Lin abstained from taking an active role in politics after the civil war ceased in 1949. Lin led a section of the government’s civil bureaucracy as one of the co-serving Deputy Vice Premiers of the People’s Republic of China from 1954 onwards, becoming First-ranked Vice Premier from 1964. Lin became more active in politics when named one of the co-serving Vice Chairmen of the Communist Party of China in 1958.
He held the three responsibilities of Vice Premier, Vice Chairman and Minister of National Defense from 1959 onwards. Lin became instrumental in creating the foundations for Mao Zedong’s cult of personality in the early 1960s, and was rewarded for his service in the Cultural Revolution by being named Mao’s designated successor as the sole Vice Chairman of the Communist Party of China, from 1969 until his death.
Lin died on September 13, 1971 when a Hawker Siddeley Trident he was aboard crashed in Mongolia. The exact events of this “Lin Biao incident” have been a source of speculation ever since. The Chinese government’s official explanation is that Lin and his family attempted to flee following a botched coup against Mao. Others have argued that they fled out of fear they would be purged, as Lin’s relationship with other Communist Party leaders had soured in the final few years of his life.
Following Lin’s death, he was officially condemned as a traitor by the Communist Party. Since the late 1970s Lin and Mao’s wife Jiang Qing (with her Gang of Four) have been labeled the two major “counter-revolutionary forces” of the Cultural Revolution, receiving official blame from the Chinese government.
Lin Biao was the son of a prosperous merchant family in Huanggang, Hubei. His name at birth was “Lin Yurong”. Lin’s father opened a small handicrafts factory in the mid-late 1910s, but was forced to close the factory due to “heavy taxes imposed by local militarists”. After closing the factory, Lin’s father worked as a purser aboard a river steamship. Lin entered primary school in 1917, but moved to Shanghai in 1919 to continue his education. As a child, Lin was much more interested in participating in student movements than in pursuing his formal education.
Lin joined a satellite organization of the Communist Youth League before he graduated high school in 1925. Later in 1925 he participated in the May Thirtieth Movement and enrolled in the newly established Whampoa Military Academy in Guangzhou.
As a young cadet, Lin admired the personality of Chiang Kai-shek, who was then the Principal of the Academy. At Whampoa, Lin also studied under Zhou Enlai, who was eight years older than Lin. Lin had no contact with Zhou after their time in Whampoa, until they met again in Yan’an in the late 1930s. Lin’s relationship with Zhou was never especially close, but they rarely opposed each other directly.
After graduating from Whampoa in 1926, Lin was assigned to a regiment commanded by Ye Ting. Less than a year after graduating from Whampoa, Lin was ordered to participate in the Northern Expedition, rising from deputy platoon leader to battalion commander in the National Revolutionary Army within a few months. It was during the Northern Expedition that Lin joined the Communist Party. By 1927 Lin was a colonel.
When he was 20 Lin married a girl from the countryside with the family name “Ong”. This marriage was arranged by Lin’s parents, and the couple never became close. When Lin left the Kuomintang to become a communist revolutionary, Ong did not accompany Lin, and their marriage effectively ended.
Lin died when a plane carrying him and several members of his family crashed in Mongolia on September 13, 1971, allegedly after attempting to assassinate Mao and defect to the Soviet Union.
Following Lin’s death, there has been widespread skepticism in the West concerning the official Chinese explanation, but forensic evidence conducted by the USSR (which recovered the bodies following the crash) has confirmed that Lin was among those who died in the crash.
Lin Biao was survived by Doudou and one other daughter. All military officials identified as being close to Lin or his family (most of China’s high military command) were purged within weeks of Lin’s disappearance.
On September 14, Zhou announced to the Politburo that four of the highest-ranking military officials in China were immediately suspended from duty and ordered to submit self-criticisms admitting their associations with Lin. This announcement was quickly followed by the arrest of ninety-three people suspected of being close to Lin, and within a month of Lin’s disappearance over 1,000 senior Chinese military officials were purged.
The official purge of Lin’s supporters continued until it was closed by the 10th Central Committee in August 1973. The incident marked the end of the myth that Mao was always considered absolutely correct within the Party. The National Day celebrations on October 1, 1971, were cancelled.
The news of Lin’s death was announced to all Communist Party officials in mid-October 1971, and to the Chinese public in November. The news was publicly received with shock and confusion. Mao Zedong was especially disturbed by the incident: his health deteriorated, and he became depressed. At the end of 1971, he became seriously ill; he suffered a stroke in January 1972, received emergency medical treatment, and his health remained unstable.
Mao became nostalgic about some of his revolutionary comrades whose purging Lin had supported, and backed Zhou’s efforts to conduct a widespread rehabilitation of veteran revolutionaries, and to correct some of the excesses of the Cultural Revolution (which he blamed on Lin). In the aftermath of the purge of Lin’s supporters, Zhou Enlai replaced Lin as the second most powerful man in China, and Jiang Qing and her followers were never able to displace him.
Without the support of Lin, Jiang was unable to prevent Zhou’s efforts to improve China’s relationship with the United States, or to rehabilitate cadres who had been purged during the Cultural Revolution. The clause in the Party constitution indicating that Lin was Mao’s successor was not officially amended until the 10th Central Committee in August 1973.
The position of the Chinese government on Lin and the circumstances of his death changed several times over the decade following 1971.
For over a year, the Party first attempted to cover up the details of Lin’s death. The government then began to issue partial details of the event, followed by an anti-Lin Biao propaganda campaign. After Mao’s death, in 1976, the government confirmed its condemnation of Lin and generally ceased any dialogue concerning Lin’s place in history.
Throughout the 1970s, high-ranking leaders of the Chinese Communist Party, including Hua Guofeng, spread the story to foreign delegates that Lin had conspired with the KGB to assassinate Mao.
In 1973 Jiang Qing, Mao’s fourth wife and a former political ally of Lin’s, started the Criticize Lin, Criticize Confucius campaign, aimed at using Lin’s scarred image to attack Zhou Enlai. Much of this propaganda campaign involved the creative falsification of history, including (false) details about how Lin had opposed Mao’s leadership and tactics throughout his career.
Lin’s name became involved in Jiang’s propaganda campaign after flashcards, made by Ye Qun to record Lin’s thoughts, were discovered in Lin’s residence following his death. Some of these flashcards recorded opinions critical of Mao. According to Lin’s writings, Mao “will fabricate ‘your’ opinion first, then he will change ‘your’ opinion – which is not actually yours, but his fabrication.
I should be careful of this standard trick.” Another critical comment of Lin’s states that Mao “worships himself and has a blind faith in himself. He worships himself to such an extent that all accomplishments are attributed to him, but all mistakes are made by others”.
Lin’s private criticisms of Mao were directly contradictory of the public image cultivated by Lin, who publicly stated following the Great Leap Forward that all mistakes of the past were the result of deviating from Mao’s instructions.
Like many major proponents of the Cultural Revolution, Lin’s image was manipulated after Mao’s death in 1976, and many negative aspects of the Cultural Revolution were blamed on Lin. After October 1976, those in power also blamed Mao’s supporters, the so-called Gang of Four.
In 1980, the Chinese government held a series of “special trials” to identify those most responsible for the Cultural Revolution. In 1981, the government released their verdict: that Lin Biao must be held, along with Jiang Qing, as one of the two major “counter-revolutionary cliques” responsible for the excesses of the late 1960s.
According to the official Party verdict, Lin and Jiang were singled out for blame because they led intra-Party cliques which took advantage of Mao’s “mistakes” to advance their own political goals, engaging in “criminal activity” for their own self-benefit.
Among the “crimes” he was charged with was the ouster of China’s head of state, Liu Shaoqi. Lin was found to be primarily responsible for using “false evidence” to orchestrate a “political frame-up” of Liu. Lin has been officially remembered as one of the greatest villains of modern China since then. Lin was never politically rehabilitated, so the charges against him continue to stand.
For several decades, Lin’s name and image were censored within China, but in recent years a balanced image of Lin has reappeared in popular culture: surviving aides and family members have published memoirs about their experience with Lin; scholars have explored most surviving evidence relevant to his life and death, and have gained exposure within the official Chinese media; movies set before 1949 have made reference to Lin; and, Lin’s name has re-appeared in Chinese history textbooks, recognizing his contributions to the victory of the Red Army. Within modern China, Lin is regarded as one of the Red Army’s best military strategists.
In 2007, a portrait of Lin was added to the Chinese Military Museum in Beijing, included in a display of the “Ten Marshals”, a group considered to be the founders of China’s armed forces.