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Shock waves from Lin Biao plane crash still echo in lead-up to Chinese Communist Party leadership reshuffle

The reverberations from a plane crash 45 years ago, when a Trident 1E airliner slammed into the Gobi Desert in eastern Mongolia, killing all those on board, opened the eyes of many people in neighbouring China.

That’s because one of the dead was Communist Party leader Mao Zedong’s hand-picked successor, Lin Biao.

The death of the “Great Helmsman’s” chosen heir in such mysterious circumstances at the age of 64 was central to the toppling of the Mao myth and the ending of the Cultural Revolution.

Sun Yixian, a Chinese diplomat who visited the site two days after the crash, taking hundreds of photographs for Beijing, said none of the Chinese and Mongolian officials who visited the scene realised there was any connection with Lin because Beijing had tried to cover it up, claiming the crashed jetliner was just an ordinary Chinese civil aircraft, even though the Mongolians argued it was a military plane because some key military documents were found at the site. A book by Sun about the affair – On the Other Side of the Desert – The incident of the crash of Lin Biao’s aircraft – was published in 2001.

The cover-up could not last for ever. The October 1 National Day parade was fast approaching and the public were expecting to see Mao, Lin, premier Zhou Enlai and other senior leaders atop the Tiananmen gate in Beijing, waving copies of Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong – the “little red book” compiled by Lin that had become an icon of the ongoing Cultural Revolution.

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But on September 24, Beijing announced the cancellation of that year’s parade. Mao, who had reviewed a million Red Guards from the Tiananmen gate in 1966, during the early days of the Cultural Revolution, would never appear there again.

After a silence of more than three weeks following the crash, Beijing finally came up with an official narrative for Lin’s demise in early October, saying he had been fleeing to the Soviet Union after a failed coup or assassination attempt on Mao when his plane ran out of fuel.

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Lin’s 54-year-old wife Ye Qun, his son, Lin Liguo, 25, and six subordinates also died in the crash, which happened around 2.25am on September 13, 1971.

“Lin’s defection was definitely a blow to Maoism, which ruled the then 800 million Chinese people [on the mainland] who got used to looking at Mao as their god,” Yu Nuxin, a Guangzhou-based scholar who was a high school student during the Cultural Revolution, told the South China Morning Post.

“It was such shocking news to the younger generation like me because none of us expected Lin, Mao’s designated heir, who had been endorsed by the party constitution in 1969, would betray the great leader.”

Shanghai-based historian Liu Tong, a 20-year-old worker in Shijiazhuang, Hebei province, at the time, said his eyes were opened by Lin’s surprise betrayal.

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“I was awakened when listening to [the radio broadcasts] about Lin’s defection,” he said. “It destroyed my superstitious worship of Mao.

“Like many ordinary people, I started asking questions. Why would such a close comrade-in-arms of chairman Mao for so many decades and his handpicked heir become an ambitious schemer? Had Mao’s brilliance gone? How come chairman Mao wasn’t aware of such a bad guy?”

With Lin labelled a counter-revolutionary following his death, many of his notebooks and notes were revealed after the party encouraged cadres and academics to study him and collect evidence of his “crimes”.

That led to more young people like Yu and Liu learning about Lin and his thoughts.

Yu spent more than four decades studying Lin’s documents, reports and letters. Liu collected every note written by Lin and Ye that he could, and even books Lin had read. He found Lin had learned from Mao to read a lot of Confucian classics and ancient books, which were banned during the Cultural Revolution for conflicting with “Mao Thought”.

The more they learned, the more contradictions they uncovered in the official denunciation of Lin. They both have some sympathy for Lin today and an appreciation of his ability to second-guess Mao’s political tactics.

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“Lin’s independent thinking and sharp political sense had helped him to gain an insight into Mao,” Liu, now 65 and formerly a researcher at the Academy of Military Sciences, wrote in an essay about Lin in the November 2015 edition of The Leader, a bimonthly Hong Kong magazine that published articles banned on the mainland. “He was shocked and scared by Mao, a political acrobat used to delivering fatal blows to political opponents in the party’s internal power struggles.

“Lin felt disappointed after Mao refused to talk to him from early 1971. He found Mao had never intended to build up a democratic centralism system in the party, but used democracy as a means to achieve his personal political aims.”

Yu said Lin prepared the defection attempt with his family, rejecting a claim by Lin’s daughter, Lin Liheng, that her father was abducted by her mother and younger brother while under the influence of sleeping pills before they boarded the aircraft that crashed in Mongolia.

Yu said Lin had been determined to flee overseas after Mao harshly criticised his wife and four of his key army aides at a party Central Committee meeting in Lushan, Jiangxi province, in the autumn of 1970. They were General Huang Yongsheng, the chief of general staff, air force commander General Wu Faxian, Rear Admiral Li Zuopeng, the navy’s party chief, and the head of the general logistics department, Lieutenant General Qiu Huizuo.

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“Mao’s severe criticism of Lin’s wife Ye Qun, who was also Lin’s office director, in party meetings and twice ordering her to write self-criticisms had pushed Lin into corner,” Yu said, adding that the relationship between Mao and Lin had reached a deadlock in August 1971.

After Lin’s death, the party accused him of conspiring with his wife and son to execute Mao during his tour of southern China in August to September of 1971, in an alleged plot dubbed “Project 571” – with 571 being a homonym for armed uprising in Putonghua. The allegation was based on a summary note written by an air force subordinate of Lin Liguo, recovered in the aftermath of the crash, which referred to Mao by the code name “B-52”.

Yu said Lin realised he had to leave China in early September and had been planning to fly to Guangzhou before using Hong Kong as a stepping stone to somewhere overseas.

But that plan had to be changed after Lin’s daughter informed on her father to Zhou Enlai on the night of September 12, 1971, a few hours before the plane carrying her father, mother and brother left Shanhaiguan naval airport in Qinhuangdao, 300km east of Beijing.

“It’s was Lin Doudou’s report that pushed her parents and younger brother to flee in such a rush,” Yu said, referring to Lin Liheng by her nickname, adding that Lin flew to Mongolia because it was closer than Guangzhou.

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“Why did Lin Doudou do it? It was because she trustfully believed in Mao’s thinking on the proletarian revolutionary line, which was well-known for its controversial quintessence: wives and husbands should expose and denounce each other’s misconduct to their superiors.”

A song popular among the younger generation in the 1960s and 1970s – Father is close, mother is close, but neither is as close as chairman Mao – was indicative of Lin Doudou’s enthusiasm for Mao, but she was still purged after her father’s attempted defection.

The decade-long catastrophe that was the Cultural Revolution drew to a close shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, with the party naming Lin and Mao’s widow, Jiang Qing, a key rival of Lin and head of the “Gang of Four”, as the leaders of “counter-revolutionary cliques” that should bear full responsibility for Mao’s political faults.

Many experts today question whether the “571 Project” notebook was falsified evidence designed to demonise Lin. But despite the vilification, Lin’s attempted defection cast a spotlight on succession planning in the party, leading to the more consultative process introduced by late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

A year away from the next leadership reshuffle, it remains a critical issue for a ruling party intent on bolstering its legitimacy.

Ding Xueliang, a Chinese politics professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, said Lin’s attempted defection pushed the party to reconsider Mao’s “hand-picked successor system”.

He said Deng, Mao’s successor, had modified the system, turning Mao’s “life and death power struggles mode into a more predictable and enlightened power transfer model”. Ding gave as examples Deng’s chosen successors – Hu Yaobang, Zhao Ziyang, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao – who were picked by Deng after consultations with political heavyweights.

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Citing the example of the downfall of the so-called “New Gang of Four” in 2014, a year after President Xi Jinping secured full power, Ding said the party was facing “a critical challenge of the most critical issues” similar to the crisis in the aftermath of Lin’s attempted defection 45 years ago.

The New Gang of Four refers to the faction of former security tsar Zhou Yongkang, former Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, former Central Military Commission vice-chairman Xu Caihou and Ling Jihua, a one-time aide to former president Hu Jintao, who are now serving life sentences in jail after being targeted by Xi’s anti-graft campaign. Some political analysis said they were targeted because they dared to challenge Xi’s heirship.

“The so-called coup of the New Gang of Four indicated more and more cadres in the party do not want to be arranged under the outdated successor system, pushing the leadership to come up with another new power-transfer model that’s different from Mao and Deng’s,” Ding said.

But he said a Western-style democratic system would not be chosen because the level of uncertainty that would create meant there would be a high risk the legitimacy of the ruling party would be undermined.

“The lack of a powerful leader like Deng will increase challenges and difficulties for the creation of a new model,” Ding said. “The new model needs to balance interests among different political groups and influential families, which is likely to be a mixture learning from Chinese modern history and the former Soviet Union’s transfer to today’s Russia.”