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…

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