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Room at the Top

Since the publication of The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao, reviewers and scholars have been quick to cast doubt on its account of the death of Lin Biao in 1971. It is as if they wished to show they are wiser than those taken in by the Hitler diaries. The book is said by the publisher to have been written by a Chinese whose identity must be withheld for his protection (Yao Ming-le is a pseudonym) and to be based on sources that cannot be examined. It is impossible to verify, and parts of it seem implausible or even fabricated. However, to concentrate on the question of authenticity may obscure the book’s value. After all, very few Chinese would dare present such a document to the Western world, and the book offers a rare and convincing portrait of how China’s top leaders lived and behaved during the Cultural Revolution. The book has the additional virtue of drawing attention to one of the great mysteries of contemporary Chinese history—the sudden death of Chairman Mao’s closest comrade in arms and chosen successor—at a time when Mao himself is being reevaluated both in China and in the West with greater objectivity than ever before.

Yao Ming-le gives an ugly picture of the relations among China’s high officials, and his book can be read as bitter commentary on the betrayal of modern Chinese socialist ideals. It may be easier for Chinese like myself, who were brought up in the People’s Republic, to accept his accounts of luxury, corruption, and quarreling among the Chinese leaders than it is for Westerners to do so. In China we became all too accustomed to the perversions of ideology in our country, for we were daily witnesses to the great contrast between our own suffering and the privileged if precarious lives of China’s leaders. Furthermore, much of Yao’s material simply echoes what we already heard about the Lin Biao incident through official documents and rumors. Although it remains uncertain whether Yao’s account can be regarded as history, few sophisticated Chinese would doubt that it vividly brings to life the intense struggle for power during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution.

Marshal Lin Biao died in September 1971, but we ordinary Chinese first heard about the incident in July 1972, ten months later. I was then a high school student in a country town in Hunan Province. At first, we knew only that something frightening and immensely important had happened. The Communist Party members among the students and teachers were called away from classes and shut up for a week of meetings in the County Revolutionary Committee compound. Armed guards stood before the meeting hall, and, despite the summer heat, the windows were heavily curtained, muffling the megaphone inside. Then a Party member was permitted to visit his sick wife and the incredible news leaked: our revered First Vice-Chairman Lin Biao had conspired to kill our beloved Chairman Mao and had died in a plane crash in Mongolia while he, his wife, his son, and a handful of co-conspirators were trying to escape to the Soviet Union in a Trident jet. This we could hardly accept, but there must have been some truth in it since our informant immediately lost his Party membership and was thrown into jail for a year and a half for breach of discipline.

We got more information soon enough. After the Party members had been briefed, it was our turn for a week of meetings. We listened to readings from official documents in the mornings, were made to discuss and criticize Lin and his policies in the afternoons. What we heard confused us more than any of the shifts in the political wind that had us spinning about dizzily since the start of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Yet the documents were said to be based on confessions, diaries, and materials elicited from Lin’s co-conspirators, servants, and even from his own daughter, Lin Doudou, so we had no choice but to try to believe them.

Much of the material contained in The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao is drawn from the official information released that week. According to the documents, the conflict between Lin and Mao came to a head during the plenary meeting of the Party in Lushan in August 1970. Lin and his allies in the armed forces proposed to restore the position of head of state, which had been abolished with Liu Shaoqi’s downfall in 1966. Since Mao had already stated he was unwilling to assume such a post, Lin was clearly planning to gain it for himself. After Mao criticized Lin’s clique for their proposal, Lin conspired to usurp power in a more direct fashion by killing Mao.

We heard in great detail how Lin’s son Lin Liguo had, as early as 1969, established his “Joint Fleet,” a private air force unit which answered only to him. Under his father’s orders he then made his “571” plan—the numbers are a pun on sounds meaning “armed uprising”—to attack “B-52,” the code name for Chairman Mao. This plan envisaged three ways of eliminating Mao: (1) blowing up his personal train as it traveled through the south either by attacks from the ground or the air; (2) burning the train when it stopped near Shanghai’s Hong Qiao Airport by setting fire to the fuel containers; or (3) sending someone with whom Mao had scheduled a private audience to assassinate him. (These last two plans are missing in Yao’s account.) Lin and his son’s men, we heard, controlled most of the Chinese air force, including many missiles and military bases. The Joint Fleet was described as being both a murder group and a whoring club, one that recruited girls from all over the country for Lin Liguo’s private harem, and imported pornography from abroad. Lin’s underlings, according to the documents read out to us, took photos of their chief’s naked concubines for his personal enjoyment. We heard too how Lin Biao’s wife, Ye Qun, had had an affair with the People’s Liberation Army chief of staff, Huang Yongsheng. Most of these stories are retold in Yao Ming-le’s book.

The documents we heard stressed Chairman Mao’s greatness, his cleverness and benevolence. He had returned early from the south to avoid the ambush; he had refused to receive his assassin. Even Lin’s personal secretary had been loyal to Mao: when the plot was discovered and Lin, his family, and closest associates were escaping to the Beidaihe Airport, the man jumped from the car and was shot as he ran. Mao, we heard, had given Lin many chances to reform or change his mind, then generously allowed him to run away, commenting to Premier Zhou, “The heavens will rain, the widow must remarry; if he wants to go, let him go where he will.” In the end, we were told, it was not Mao but fate that punished Lin for his sins as the jet, short of fuel, crashed in Mongolia and all nine on board died.

All this was astounding, but most confusing of all were the criticisms we were required to make of Lin’s policies, for they called into question the ways in which we had been directed to conduct our lives during recent years. At Lin’s command we had worshiped Chairman Mao, memorizing his Quotations, bowing three times before his image at dawn to “ask for advice” and three times before sleeping to “make reports” on our progress in revolutionizing our thoughts. Now we were told that Lin had wanted to promote the cult of Mao for his own purposes and that these activities were the outcome of Lin’s “bad thought.” They would all come to an end.

We went through the motions of destroying Lin’s image, tearing down and burning the posters that hung everywhere side by side with those of Mao, taking the badges with his picture off our shirts and turning them in. We began to “ferret out” the people with sympathies toward Lin’s ideas and witnessed a macabre changing of the guard as one group of military officials were marched into prison and another was released. These events were one more example of the illogical reversals that took place during the Cultural Revolution; yet they contributed more than any others to our growing sense that we had been tricked and betrayed; they planted the doubts about Chinese socialism that have since grown among many young people.

Lin Biao had been the second most powerful man in China. His friendship with Mao went back to the days of guerrilla warfare in the Jinggang Mountains during the Thirties; they had made the Long March together. As Lin became famous for his military genius in battles against the Japanese and the Kuomintang, he also became known as Mao’s closest ally in internal factional struggles. With Lin’s military support, Mao edged out a long list of rivals including Liu Shaoqi and Deng Xiaoping. We thought the Cultural Revolution had brought their relationship even closer: through Lin’s efforts Mao had become an omnipotent god worshiped by all China, and Lin was his “outstanding student,” always by his side waving a copy of the Little Red Book. It was Lin who had whipped us into a fever to protect Chairman Mao against his enemies—if Lin himself were an enemy, the entire premise of the Cultural Revolution was a lie.

Moreover, as Yao Ming-le points out, the official account of what had happened raised more questions than it answered. Why, we wondered, if he had his eye on Mao’s position, didn’t Lin just wait patiently for the old man’s death? Why did he try to escape to the Soviet Union, when the documents we had been listening to described his plans to establish a new central committee in the south, where his co-conspirators had so much power? Why didn’t Mao do something to stop his flight, and how could the plane have run out of fuel so quickly?

As always in cases when official information was insufficient, gossip soon began. (We were long accustomed to having to rely on hearsay, since so much of what went on in China was classified for the very few.) Most of these rumors claimed that Chairman Mao himself had had Lin killed; they differed only in their description of Mao’s methods. Perhaps Mao had ordered the air force to shoot down the plane; perhaps a time bomb had been planted in it; perhaps a patriotic pilot, on orders from Mao and Zhou, had agreed to crash it deliberately (in those days, to die for Mao was pure happiness). Of course, some thought Mao had killed the Lins first, then placed the bodies on the plane and arranged for its crash over Mongolia. At the time, it didn’t much matter to us how Lin Biao had died, since we had not yet begun to rethink our adulation of Mao. We were told Lin had conspired against him rather than the other way around. Mao was the moral victor, and such rumors didn’t change the place Mao held in our hearts.

Many of us, especially among younger urban intellectuals, are wiser now. We see Mao as little better than a communist emperor, a proletarian god who tricked us into turning our guns on one another, who ripped our families apart, and turned us loose against the “Four Olds,” destroying thousands of years of ancient civilization in a few months. Many thousands of us were sent to rot in jails or to suffer among peasants for whom we were an unwanted burden. Many killed themselves. It took Mao’s death and the unprecedented chaos of those years to awaken us to the foolhardiness of our blind obedience. Some of us have reflected on the connection between our acquiescence during those years and the acquiescence during thousands of years of feudalism and Confucianism, when obedience to the emperor and higher authority was the basic moral standard.

In China, the waves of rumor and gossip about the Lin Biao incident soon subsided. But if The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao could be read there today, even those who felt it did not ring entirely true would once more feel outrage toward the handful of leaders who came so close to destroying our country for the sake of their own power. What would seem especially plausible is Yao’s suggestion that Mao first threatened Lin by letting it be known that he was reconsidering his choice of successor and planning to remove Lin from power. If this is true, Lin planned his coup in self-defense, when he discovered he was about to become yet another victim of the ceaseless internal struggles of the Chinese Communist Party. What Yao doesn’t mention is the possibility that Mao, realizing he might be blamed for the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, may have considered Lin the ideal scapegoat. As a dead man, Lin became the perfect target of subsequent political movements in China; he could be treated as a leftist or as a rightist, as need required.

In fact, Yao Ming-le’s account repeats or embellishes much of what I heard during that grueling week of political study in 1972; all the photographs in the book are taken from official documents. What is different is the way the stories are dramatized and the detail with which they are told: Yao claims that at the last minute Lin Biao personally stopped the ambush of Mao’s train; and he quotes from a diary that vividly—perhaps too vividly—describes Lin Liguo’s methods of examining the girls who might become his “Angels”:

Lounging on a plush divan, imbibing good liquor, Lin Liguo took his time studying each girl, her physique, posture, fitness and beauty. If he liked what he saw, he requested a second and still more intimate examination.

Yao Ming-le also gives elaborate descriptions of the places where events took place, including official residences, villas, military headquarters, etc. The living and working quarters of the powerful are the subject of much speculation in China, and even of literary works, and Yao’s account seems based on the sort of gossip among well-connected people that I remember hearing myself.

But Yao’s most radical departure from the official version is his claim that Lin Biao and his son formed separate conspiracies. I have never heard anything even vaguely resembling the “Jade Tower Mountain scheme” Yao attributes to Lin Biao himself. According to Yao, Lin sent a spy to the Soviet Union to try to stage a border war that would permit Lin to declare martial law, force Mao and his clique into an underground military headquarters west of Beijing, and pump poison gas in to kill them. Also new to me is the account of how Chairman Mao, with the help of his trusted aide Wang Dongxing, Premier Zhou, and his wife Jiang Qing, lured Lin and his wife to a private villa for a lavish banquet, then ordered his personal guards to destroy their departing limousine by firing a volley of rockets.

Yao Ming-le claims he had privileged access to information used in a cover-up of Mao’s murder of Lin. However, even the parts of his account that follow official documents most closely are open to question, since Yao’s own claim that there was a cover-up implies that many of these were distortions of fabrications. Even more difficult to verify is Yao’s new information. It seems unlikely, for example, that Lin Biao would believe that his plan to concoct a border war with the Soviet Union would be more reliable than his son’s idea of a simple, direct attack. Or that Mao would choose to kill Lin in such a noisy fashion, since the neighboring villas would have been inhabited by other high-ranking leaders. In none of the wildest Chinese gossip of the last twelve years have I heard even echoes of these new explanations. It seems probable that if there had been a violent attack in Mao’s driveway, some of the children of high officials, the usual source of the best unofficial information, would have overheard it and spread the word, or that someone involved in the attack itself would have spoken of it. If a spy did go to the Soviet Union to arrange a border war on Lin’s behalf, why have official documents been content merely to hint vaguely that Lin hoped for Soviet support leading to a Sino-Soviet rapprochement?

The language used throughout the book also seems less than authentic. If the sources are really 1971 confessions and diaries, why is there an almost complete absence of dry political rhetoric? In those days, we could barely open our mouths without mentioning Chairman Mao. How is it that in Yao’s story high military leaders seem to have become expert psychologists, recording their own complex thoughts and motivations at a time when, in China, such personal language was hardly ever written down if it was used at all? Why is Chairman Mao referred to throughout as Mao Zedong when even today we would at least add the word “comrade” before his name? If translated back into Chinese, The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao would not read as if it were based on documents from the Cultural Revolution; one suspects a skilled Western writer or editor has had a hand in it.

I would suggest, then, that The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao is a mixture of official records, with rumor and gossip about the lives of high officials and their villas and about the places where an assassination could have taken place. Such information could have been obtained from many well-connected people living in Beijing, or it could have been culled from recent Chinese plays and short stories about the incident. Some of the book may be sheer invention. All of it seems to have been baked in a Western oven for foreign consumption. But what seems to me clear and important is that the text is basically Chinese in origin. At the very least, it reflects the attitudes of some Chinese toward Mao and the leaders of his era. It shows clearly the disillusionment with the Party that has led the current regime to proclaim a “crisis of confidence” in today’s China. And it convincingly indicts Chinese socialism for failing to live up to the expectations it created, and for repeating instead corrupt old patterns from the feudal era.

The Leninism underlying Chinese political ideology called for government by a Party elite. This fitted in all too well with the age-old Chinese tradition of centralized imperial power. While the Party elite was supposed to represent the proletariat, it became instead a privileged, corrupt, and power-hungry class, whose style of life was similar to that of feudal emperors and nobles. Yao Ming-le shows how, in modern China, Lin Liguo behaved like a prince beyond all normal constraints. He screened foreign sex movies at a time when an ordinary Chinese could spend, as a friend of mine did, four years in prison just for listening to the Voice of America. He shows how Mao himself, like an emperor, relied on spies, and believed in auguries and superstitions. (The father of one of my acquaintances, a longtime friend of Mao’s, told me how the chairman frequently summoned a fortune teller to visit him at home.) And Yao makes it clear that Mao, like an emperor, did not hesitate to do away with his closest associate when he felt it served his interests to do so.

Even if The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao turns out to be no more than a historical novel, it captures the spirit of the Cultural Revolution in describing what Mao is supposed to have said to some close associates when he considered ways of dealing with Lin Biao. According to Yao, Mao simply told the story of how Liu Bang, an emperor who lived nearly two thousand years ago, killed his best general and closest supporter, Han Xin. Unfortunately, for the time being, we must be content to know more about that murder of long ago than we do about the conspiracy and death of Lin Biao.

Translated from the Chinese
by Judith Shapiro

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