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1.14  Mao's Cultural Revolution Phase II (1969 - 71) - The Reconstruction Phase & the Lin Biao Affair

1 July 2018

The Turning Point from Political Activism to Reconstruction: 9th Party Congress in 1969


The 9th Party Congress held in April 1969 is the fundamental turning point of the Cultural Revolution. The Congress not only heralded the end of the era of radicalism and disorder, during which Lin Biao and the military had necessarily played the leading role to maintain security and social order amid the mayhem. It also marked the beginning of a post-activist era of relative moderation and stability, during which Zhou EnIai and a reconstructed civilian Party were destined to play an increasingly important role to reinstitute a rule-based social order and to revitalize the economy.[1]


Although Mao overthrew the old Party Establishment in the Cultural Revolution, he did not aim to abolish the Party itself. Instead, he wanted to build a new Party into one that would be more responsive to his authority without developing an independent power which he had no control over.


Preparations for the rebuilding began in October 1968 when the 12th Plenum of the 8th Central Committee adopted the new Party Constitution, in addition to formally indicting Liu Shaoqi. The Party Constitution was then ratified during the 9th Party Congress in April 1969. It clearly stated that the CCP was the "political party of the proletariat" built upon the theoretical basis of "Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought". With the restoration of the Party to its original position of supremacy, it was declared that basic organizational principles such as democratic centralism, collective leadership and discipline were once again to be adhered to. This formally signalled the end of the activist phase of the Cultural Revolution.


Notably, the new constitution mentioned neither the Secretariat nor the Control Commission except for “a number of necessary organs, which are compact and efficient”. Mao wanted to simplify the Party's organizations to facilitate a direct relationship between Mao and the masses. Any local units could therefore directly report to the Central Committee and the Chairman without going through the interlocking organizations.[2]


More importantly, the new Party constitution also institutionalized the new Maoist political order. Mao was confirmed as the supreme leader while Lin Biao was promoted to the post of CCP vice chairman and named as Mao's successor. The new Politburo Standing Committee was composed of Mao, Lin, Zhou, Chen Boda and Kang Sheng. Under the charge of the military led by Lin and the radicals led by Jiang Qing, the Cultural Revolution had by then purged over 80 percent of the old central leaders, mostly those who had been allegedly associated with Liu Shaoqi and Peng Zhen. The 9th Party Congress thus ratified a new coalition consisting of Mao's close supporters, military leaders, and some old cadres. These new leaders evolved around Mao, Lin and Zhou. Of these, the military overwhelmed the others. Within the Central Committee, for example, some 44 percent came from the military, 27 percent from the old cadres, and 29 per cent from the masses.


Though the politics of leadership in 1969 was still in a state of flux, some broad trends were discernible. Given the important the military had been playing in maintaining order, its steady growth in power at the Centre was to be expected. The party congress also marked the rising influence of two opposing forces, Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, leading the ultra-Leftist radicals, and Premier Zhou Enlai, leading the moderate pragmatists.


There was an effective stalemate in the struggle for power between the pragmatists and the radicals. Neither faction managed to gain total control. While the radical forces controlled much of the information and cultural affairs of the country, the pragmatists controlled much of the technical and bureaucratic aspects of the Party and government. Mao seemed intent to balance the radicals and pragmatists against one another and was unable or unwilling to give full support to either side. As Mao saw it, China needed both pragmatism and revolutionary enthusiasm, each acting as a check on the other. Factional infighting would therefore continue unabated through the mid-1970s, although an uneasy coexistence was maintained while Mao was alive.


With the end of the activist phase of the Cultural Revolution, the general emphasis by 1969 was on reconstruction through rebuilding of the party, economic stabilization, and greater sensitivity to foreign affairs. The process was difficult, however, given the pervasiveness of factional tensions and the discord carried over from the activist phase, not to mention also the interferences from the power military leaders who played an important role in the execution of policies at the local level. As a result of differences that persisted within the new political order over a wide range of policy issues, reconstruction efforts were unnecessarily tedious.


Notwithstanding, pragmatism was steadily gaining momentum as a central theme following the 9th National Party Congress because of the shift of emphasis from political activism to reconstruction. The radical group, comprising of Kang Sheng (康生), Xie Fuzhi (谢富治), Jiang Qing (江青), Zhang Chunqiao (张春桥), Yao Wenyuan (姚文元), and Wang Hongwen (王洪文), no longer had Mao's unqualified support.


Their declining fortune was contrasted by the pivotal position enjoyed by the military, which had seen its power grow steadily since the start of the Cultural Revolution. Of the 170 full members of the Central Committee, 87 were military men (68 commanders and 19 commissars, or about 51.2 percent), 53 were veteran officials (about 31.5 percent) and 29 came from mass organizations (about 17.2 percent). In the Politburo, at least 10 of the 21 full members and 2 of the 4 alternates could be classed as having a primary identification with the military.[3]


Moreover, at the local levels, the military dominated not only the Revolutionary Committees but now also the new Provincial Party Committees. Of the 479 standing committee members of the Revolutionary Committees, 235 or 49 percent were from the PLA, 109 or 22 percent were veteran cadres, while 132 or 27.6 percent represented mass organizations. Of the 219 chairmen and vice-chairmen, 100 or 45.7 per cent were military men, 62 or 28.3 percent were veteran cadres, while 57 or 26 percent were from mass organizations. Of the 29 chairmen, 22 (75.9 percent) were military men (13 commanders and 9 commissars).[4]


As for the 29 Provincial Party Committees completed between December 1970 and August 1971, the military took 20 first secretaries; of 158 of the leading cadres 95 were military; except in Beijing and Shanghai the military dominated all other Provincial Party Committees.


In short, at the time of the 9th Party Congress and in the 2 years following it, it was the military rather than the Party that held most of the key positions of power in China.[5] The role assumed by the military by the end of the Cultural Revolution confirmed Mao's dictum, though not quite in the way Mao had intended it, that "political power grows out of the barrel of the gun (枪杆子里出政权)".[6]


Mao’s Mounting Concerns over the Rising Dominance of the Military


For Mao who had just succeeded in regaining control after eliminating Liu’s and his Rightist revisionist clique, the rising dominance of the military was becoming a grave cause for concerns. When Mao professed that "political power grows out of the barrel of the gun", he also believed that "the Party controls the gun and the gun shall never be allowed to control the Party". The problem was that there was no Party to speak of. The Party organizations disintegrated, along with the old political order, as a result of the assaults mounted against them by the Red Guards.


To be fair, the regional commanders had self-imposed strict limits on the exercise of their newly acquired power. They had scrupulously refrained from open defiance of the Party Centre which would endanger the framework of national unity or bring into question the basic allegiance the regions to Beijing.  At no time was there any portent of the return of the "warlordism" that had dogged the Nationalist government in the 1920s and 1930s.


Moreover, the regional commanders’ free use of their power to flout unacceptable directives from Beijing was to a great extent encouraged by the instability and infighting of the central leadership. Often, suboptimal policy statements emanating from Beijing seemed to suggest the existence of a power stalemate between moderate and radical leaders. Until conflicts at the top played out, it was the jobs of the local commanders, in any case, to exercise initiatives in adapting policies to suit local needs and interests, based on their perspectives.[7]


Hence, in many ways, the military at the local levels, as the only institution of power left relatively unscathed by the Cultural Revolution, continued to play an important and useful role even after the end of the activist phase, as the rebuilding of the new Party got underway.


Notwithstanding, Mao still expected a transition of power back to the Centre to ensure that there would not be another “independent kingdom” other than the Party. Just as Jiang’s ultra-leftist radical faction no longer had Mao's unqualified support because the Chinese political tide was shifting steadily toward the right of centre with the reconstruction, the military was now expected to play a supportive role and not hamper the rebuilding of the Party and the reconstruction under the charge of pragmatists led by Zhou.


Mao concerns were also exacerbated by the deep disagreement on political issues between Lin and him. Whereas Mao was eager to rebuild the party as a new power base, Lin favoured allowing the army to continue serving as the administrative organization governing the country. While Mao began to espouse more moderate agricultural and economic policies, taking a more liberal attitude toward private land-holding, free markets and individual initiative, Lin continued to uphold the radical doctrines of rigid collectivization favoured during the Cultural Revolution. And while Mao and Zhou Enlai began to edge toward rapprochement with the United States, Lin wanted China to steer clear of both the United States and the Soviet Union.[8]


In fact, even before the 9th Party Congress, differences between Mao and Lin were already emerging particularly over the question of "the scale of the purge within the Party". The disagreement was not over the need to purify the old Party apparatus, which was a central aim of the Cultural Revolution, but over the manner in which and the extent to which this purge was to be carried out. Mao was particularly alarmed by reports of widespread violence and of the wholesale purge and replacement of veteran cadres in the nation-wide "purification of class ranks" campaign carried out by the military-dominated apparatus in the autumn of 1968.[9] The maltreatment of Party members and others removed from power” had slowed the rebuilding and transformation of the Party. He thus suspected that it was Lin’s ploy to replace the old cadres with new ones loyal to Lin, thus tilting the balance of power, in favour of the military, at the Centre where the new post-Cultural Revolution structure of power would be determined.[10]


The mechanism to achieve this ploy was the 7 May Cadre School where the purged cadres were sent to undergo a refresher course in Mao Thought and to perform hard physical labour. Through faithful performance of these duties, they could demonstrate anew their loyalty to Chairman Mao and Mao's revolutionary line. By mid-1970, perhaps as many as 100,000 cadres from the central political apparatus and some one million cadres at the provincial level had been sent to these schools in the countryside for study and labour. The flaw in this arrangement was that these schools were run by the PLA, with military leaders apparently empowered to decide whether the old Party cadres had passed the test of political loyalty and were thus entitled to return to positions of authority in the new political apparatus.[11] The charge that the PLA had abused this authority to prevent the rehabilitation of veteran Party cadres and thus perpetuate its own power was thus credible and supported by developments at the time. If true, the conspiratorial ploy revealed not only Lin’s political ambition but also the military’s intent to perpetuate its dominance in the new Party-State power structure.[12]

Hence, for Mao, the core of the problem associated with an politically ambitious Lin and excessively powerful PLA was the issue of civilian versus military control over China's political system which in turn would dictate the general direction of policy (a "two-line" struggle) - whether it would be towards the Right (the Lin group charging that "the Right wing had raised its head") or towards the Left (Mao charging that the military-dominated apparatus had "followed the wrong line," meaning the Leftist line of overemphasizing politics).[13]


Mao decided that it was time to rein in Lin, whom he was beginning to distrust. In March 1970, that growing distrust of his chosen successor was manifested dramatically in his decision to remove the post of Chairman of the State from the new draft of the Chinese People's Republic Constitution. The move confirmed Premier Zhou as the de facto head of the Government, outranking Lin in both of his Government positions of Vice Premier and Minister of National Defence. It also suggested that Mao had given up his earlier plan to have a single successor (Lin) and was now thinking in terms of a collective leadership in which Lin as the head of the Party, and Zhou, as head of the Government, would share power.[14]

It dawn on Lin that, even though he was formally anointed as Mao’s successor, his accession to the top post was by no means certain. Indeed, by 1970, the camaraderie between the Mao and Lin had ended. Mao had become wary of Lin's impatience to take over while Lin had grown darkly suspicious that he was being eased out of the line of succession. Tension between the two was clearly rising and it set the stage for yet another vicious political struggle at the top, one which Mao later referred to as the tenth major struggle between opposing "lines" and "two headquarters" in the history of the Chinese Communist Party.


The struggle, even more dramatic than the one between Mao and Liu, passed through several fairly well-defined stages. In the first stage, extending from the 9th Party Congress in April 1969 to the 2nd Plenum of the 9th Central Committee in August 1970, Mao launched a low-key rectification campaign to educate the military commanders of their mistakes and directed them to engage in self-criticism. In the second stage, extending from the 2nd Plenum through the summer of 1971, Lin, together with Chen Boda and five top ranking military leaders, first openly declared political combat at the Lushan Plenum. When it backfired and Mao launched another rectification campaign against the military with the intention to purge Lin’s “conspiratorial clique”, Lin reportedly plotted a coup d’état to reclaim the right to rule China as Mao's successor. The third, climactic stage of the struggle occurred in August and September 1971, when Mao sought assurances of support from regional military leaders for an impending showdown with Lin, who reacted by attempting to flee to the Soviet Union but died when the plane crashed enroute in Mongolia because it ran out of fuel. The final stage saw the continuing struggle to identify and purge Lin's supporters, to resolve a central issue in the Lin Biao affair – the issue of civilian versus military control over China's political system – and to put in place a new Party-State political order within which the disparate elements in the post-Lin leadership could unite.


Stage 1:  Low Key Rectification Campaign to Rein in the Military (April 1969 – August 1970)


To begin his quest to rein in the military, Mao initiated a low-key rectification campaign against Lin's military apparatus and criticized them for "arrogance and complacency" in the implementation of the regime's policies, before directing them to engage in "criticism and self-criticism" and to admit their “shortcomings and mistakes”. [15]


At the same time, Mao also reminded the military that its dominant political role was only temporary and that "veteran Party cadres" were better qualified, because of their "richer experience and better understanding of the Party's policies", to undertake the complicated tasks of reconstruction. Instead of the simple political virtues as the criteria for selecting new leaders, which Lin stressed during the initial stage of the Cultural Revolution, more emphasis was now placed on professional qualifications. In other words, the ideal cadre would now be both “red and expert” instead of just being “red”.[16] Moreover, the military was instructed to study Mao's thought on Party-building particularly based on "Article 5 of the Party Constitution" which specifies civilian Party leadership over the Army.[17]


The campaign, however, met with opposition from the military commanders, indicating the military’s resistance to repent. Mao thus escalated the campaign of pressure by openly equating the "arrogance" with disobedience and disloyalty. In a series of articles published in November 1969, Mao also levelled a new and more serious charge at the PLA-dominated apparatus: that its defective work-style resulted from ideological shortcomings and a bourgeois world outlook. An important 5 November People's Daily editorial criticized this work-style as "bureaucratic, subjective and formalistic", in contrast to Mao's work-style which was practical and realistic.[18]


In a People's Daily editorial dated 1 July 1970, just a month before the start of the Second Plenum at Lushan, Mao also redefined a good Maoist as one who was loyal to Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought, who trusted the masses and who, after making mistakes, was willing to conduct self-criticism. This less Leftist redefinition by Mao, who considered himself a “centre-Leftist”, omitted any reference to the three criteria of a loyal Maoist that Lin set out in August 1966 at the outset of the Cultural Revolution as part of his effort to establish a Mao cult. At that time, he defined a loyal Maoist as one who eagerly studied Mao thought, attached great importance to the political and ideological work and was filled with revolutionary zeal.[19]


Other developments in the struggle in the autumn and winter of 1969 included the decision to abolish the Cultural Revolution Group (which had been charged with carrying out most of the Leftist policies and programmes of the Cultural Revolution) and to demote its head, Chen Boda (the architect of a number of the Leftist policies of the Cultural Revolution) to a position of relative unimportance (there is no record of Chen making a speech or policy statement after October 1969). Around the same time, an investigation was also launched against the May 16 Group, a hyper-militant Red Guard organization which, was accused of engaging in a conspiracy to seize power (by overthrowing Premier Zhou in the aftermath of the Wuhan Incident[20]) in 1967 and which by 1969 was a symbol for the extremism, violence and Leftist excesses of the Cultural Revolution. Notably, many of the charges of "ultra-Leftism" levelled against the May 16 Group (e.g., their "desire for instant communism" and their persecution of "veteran Party cadres") were subsequently levelled against Lin Biao and his military supporters". [21]


It was clear to Lin Biao that, with the situation returning to ‘normal’ and his value to Mao diminishing, his political ambition for the top post was becoming increasingly untenable. He realized that 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. During the activist phase of the Cultural Revolution, Lin joined Jiang Qing’s ultra-leftist wing in overthrowing the old Party Establishment. When this task was almost achieved, Jiang’s radical faction sought to overthrow the military establishment. In the end, the military prevailed over Jiang Qing’s radical faction because the military was still needed to maintain order while the new Party structure was being rebuilt. Mao’s support for the military then culminated in the Centre issuing the September 5 directive which gave the Army the authority to use force in dealing with the armed Red Guards. However, with the end of the activist phase and the formation of the new Party-State structure, the role of the military had greatly diminished in importance.


Moreover, Lin did not have the unqualified support of all his regional commanders. Some resented Lin’s initial support for the radicals. For it was this group that launched assaults on the PLA and was responsible for the harassment and humiliation the proud and assertive local commanders had been subjected to. A case in point is the Wuhan July 20 Incident in 1967 when Lin stood with Jiang to denounce the Wuhan military commander Tan Zaidao and accused him of mutiny. Lin's cardinal misdeed was therefore that he did not raise his voice forcefully and frequently enough to protect his military commanders at the local levels from attacks by the radicals and the Red Guards. His silence stood out in sharp contrast to the consistent efforts of Zhou Enlai who spoke out on behalf of the army commanders. This was something the commanders apparently did not forgive or forget. So, when the tide of development turned, the ground was laid for Lin’s isolation. Combined with personal, power, and policy factors, this isolation eventually led to Lin's downfall.[22]


As an establishment, the military was also internally divided on policy issues. The military was far from being a homogeneous body. On one side of the infighting was the Lin Biao faction, which continued to exhort the need for "politics in command" and for an unrelenting struggle against both the Soviet Union and the United States. On the other side was a majority of the regional military commanders, who had become concerned about the effect Lin Biao's political ambitions would have on military modernization and economic development. The views of these moderate commanders were generally in tune with the positions taken by Zhou Enlai and his moderate associates who spoke for more material incentives for the peasantry, efficient economic planning, and a thorough reassessment of the Cultural Revolution. They also advocated improved relations with the West in general and with the United States in particular – if for no other reason than to counter the perceived expansionist ambitions of the Soviet Union.


To Lin, Zhou was therefore a mounting threat to his position not only because of Mao's increasing reliance on Zhou but also because of Zhou’s deepening and widening affiliations with his regional military commanders.


Finally, some military commanders were unhappy with Lin’s excessive emphasis on politics at the expense of professionalism. Many of these commanders were professionals who rooted for the modernization of military, a process that was begun by Peng Dehuai, who led an army of poorly-equipped Chinese troops to hold back the US in the Korean War. The issue seemed to be largely dormant during the Cultural Revolution but reappeared after Lin's purge. Indeed, after Lin's downfall, the pendulum swung in the direction of professionalism, with a renewed stress on military training and competency.[23]


In short, during the period of Party reconstruction, there was a split of the military into two groups as a result of the intra-military divisions: Lin and several top central military leaders, as well as their allies in the provinces, who had become identified with the radical wing of the Maoist leadership and a much more amorphous group of officers composed of many powerful regional commanders, as well as professional officers who had opposed radical policies and who had been attacked by the Red Guards during the peak of the activist phase. As the direction of national policies swung steadily away from the Left, and as the moderate military leaders solidified their positions of power, the split between these two groups widened.[24]


In 1970-71, the crevices and fissures within the military establishment allow Zhou Enlai to forge a centrist-rightist alliance with a group of PLA regional military commanders further exacerbating Lin’s isolation within the military establishments.


Indeed, the fact that Lin and his associates embarked upon the risky road which led to the downfall suggest that they were driven by their insecurity rather than motivated by their strength. This insecurity was partly the product of their isolation which began during the Cultural Revolution and was accelerated as the anti-Lin forces in the PLA consolidated their power.[25]


In the end, to consolidate his own power base at the Centre and to outstrip Zhou, whose power base, the State Council, emerged largely intact from the Cultural Revolution, Lin had to forge a desperate alliance with the less-than-ideal-choice of Chen Boda, an ultra-Leftist now sidelined by his demotion by the self-proclaimed centre-Leftist Mao. It was this association, in addition to Lin’s earlier link with the Cultural Revolution Group, that Mao later used as grounds to justify his indictment of Lin as an ultra-Leftist.


As it happened, Lin, who saw Mao withdrawing his right to the succession, Chen, whose ultra-Leftism made him vulnerable at a time when the policy line was shifting to the Right, and four top-ranking military leaders, who viewed Mao's escalating pressure on the military apparatus as a threat to themselves, banded together to launch a surprise and, in retrospect, desperate veiled attack on Zhou at the Second Plenum at Lushan in August 1970, without first informing the other members of the Politburo Standing Committee.[26]


Stage 2: Lushan Plenum and Mao’s “Criticize Revisionism, Rectify Work-Style" Campaign


The Lushan Plenum in August 1970 is the second important milestone in the Lin Biao Affairs. For it was there that the otherwise covert struggle between Mao and Lin for control over the post-Cultural Revolution political apparatus was brought to the forefront.[27]


The "surprise attack", contained in speeches by Lin Biao, Chen Boda and other top military leaders, was directed at those leaders (particularly Zhou EnIai) who, in drafting the new State Constitution, had deleted the post of Chairman and a provision extolling the "genius" of Mao. By so doing, Lin and Chen implied that these leaders opposed Mao's leadership and Mao's thought and, accordingly, should be criticized. They had also hoped to win majority support by proposing that Mao become the first Chairman of State under the new Constitution. However, the strategy backfired when Mao rejected both the proposal for a State Chairman and the view of "genius" of Mao. On the former issue, Mao reminding Lin that on six earlier occasions he had told him "we do not need a Chairman of the State".[28]


Given that Lin was the head of a powerful military organization now firmly entrenched at both the Centre and the local levels as a result of the Cultural Revolution, Mao was compelled to tread cautiously in response to Lin’s challenge. Instead of taking immediate direct action against Lin, as he had done with Peng Dehuai earlier also at Lushan in 1959, Mao now resorted to indirect tactics to first undermine Lin's base of power in the Army. He first called upon those military leaders, who had engaged in the "conspiracy" at Lushan, to criticize the views expressed by Chen Boda at the Second Plenum and, by so doing, renounced those views. Compelled to recant, these top military leaders all wrote self-criticisms which were then distributed at a Central Committee work conference in April 1971. Having weakened the positions of Lin's top military supporters, Mao then began to undermine Lin's power base in Beijing. Using his power of appointment and removal as chairman of both the Party and the Military Affairs Committee, he reorganized and added Mao loyalists to the Military Affairs Committee of the Party's Central Committee and then reshuffled the Beijing Military Region.[29]


Having weakened Lin's support at the top of the power structure, Mao's next moved on to his ultimate objective which was to undermine Lin’s base of power in the political apparatus as a whole. The instrument for accomplishing this objective was a "criticize revisionism, rectify work-style" campaign directed at "senior cadres" in the political apparatus, the great majority of whom were military commanders.


Mao’s usual strategy in a rectification campaign was to hold a few "class enemies" at the top primarily responsible for opposition to Mao's policies and programmes, and then accusing them of formulating and spreading a "revisionist" ideology which then corrupted leading cadres at intermediate and lower levels of the apparatus. In this rectification against the military establishments, Mao set his crosshair on Chen.


Whereas the Cultural Revolution had, at a time when the policy line was shifting to the Left, attacked Liu’s Rightist "revisionism" and the resulting "bureaucratic" work-style of the Party apparatus, this campaign following the Second Plenum, at a time when the policy line was shifting to the Right, accused Chen of formulating and spreading a ultra-Leftist "revisionist" ideology which then corrupted leading cadres at intermediate and lower levels of the apparatus, resulting eventually in the work-style of "arrogance and complacency" of the PLA-dominated political apparatus which he pointed out earlier in 1969.[30]


The three-fold remedy for this latest error of Left deviationism was, by means of the "criticize revisionism, rectify work-style" campaign for leading military cadres: (1) to remould their thinking by studying Mao's philosophic works and thus learn how to "integrate theory with practice” and to adopt a "realistic and scientific" approach to problems; (2) to rectify their work-style by correcting the defects of "arrogance and complacency" and overcoming the tendency towards "one man rule" by respecting the collective leadership of civilian Party Committees; and (3) to engage in self-criticism, thus demonstrating their loyalty to Mao and their willingness to return to the correct Maoist Line.[31]


The response from the military authorities to this rectification campaign was generally negative. Many ignored the campaign's exhortations to change course, carry out self-criticism, and obey the directives of the civilian Party apparatus.


The road to power in the Cultural Revolution for both Lin and the PLA had been one of "giving prominence to politics". Thus the central charge in this campaign – that an overemphasis on politics had resulted in "Leftist deviationism" in the implementation of Mao's policy line – served to undercut one of the most important justifications for the continued right to rule for the PLA. The negative response of military authorities to the rectification campaign suggested that they were aware of that implication.


Furthermore, a number of regional and provincial military commanders continued openly to praise Lin and glorify the Army, despite mounting evidence that both Lin and the Army's political role were under Maoist attack. This striking manifestation of resistance confirmed what Mao already knew - that in Lin and his military supporters he faced a powerful adversary against whom he would have to move cautiously both at the centre and in the provinces.


To Mao, it was not surprising that Lin, seeing both his right to rule and that of the Army being withdrawn in the early stages of the struggle, turned to the military for support. What was perhaps surprising was that so many military leaders, not only at the top but at intermediate and basic levels as well, apparently came to share Lin's view that the shift towards civilian Party rule was a threat to their own positions of authority in China's power structure and stood their ground to resist the shift.[32]


Stage 3: Lin Biao’s Abortive Coup in September 1971


As for Lin, he clearly understood Mao's intentions and techniques. He was convinced that, even though Mao's initial tactic was to focus exclusively on Chen, he would be the ultimate target and it was just a matter of time he would be purged. From early 1971, Mao had refused to talk to him. Feeling the noose around his neck tightening, official accounts go that, in March 1971, Lin's faction worked out a coup plan. The plot (codenamed ''Project 571'' - a play on the Chinese monosyllables wu qi yi which when spoken means ''armed uprising武装起义'') was to assassinate Mao (codenamed ''B-52'').


In August and early September 1971, in preparation for an impending showdown with Lin and his “conspiratorial clique”, Mao went on an inspection tour in Southern China to seek assurances of support from regional military leaders. During the tour, he painstakingly reiterated why the Army could no longer be permitted to control the political apparatus in China while exhorting these military leaders to give up the political role they had played during the Cultural Revolution and to return to their traditional role of conducting military affairs.


Meanwhile, Lin and his associates planned to blow up Mao’s private train as he returned to Beijing on 12 September 1971 from the inspection tour of South China. There was no information as to whether Mao had by this time received information about the impending coup or whether the plan was indeed put into action. According to one account, it was Lin's own daughter Tou-tou's (nickname豆豆, original name Lin Liheng林立衡) who reported the coup and thus enabled the train to halt before it reached the detonation point. Lin and his wife fled by a Trident Jet to the Soviet Union but the plane crashed in Mongolia around 2.25 am the next day."[33] Lin’s 25-year-old son, Lin Liguo, and six subordinates also died in the crash.


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 died while fleeing to the Soviet Union after a failed assassination attempt on Mao when his plane ran out of fuel and crashed in Mongolia.


The official accounts, however, left many questions unanswered. Many Chinese who worshipped Mao, for example, began to wonder how Mao’s handpicked heir and close comrade-in-arms for so many decades had become an ambitious schemer and why Mao was unaware of such a bad guy.[34] At the very least, the official explanation reflected adversely on Mao's judgment and on the Maoist political system. Many military cadres also thought that it was unfair to blame them for not recognizing Lin and his associates as "political swindlers". They felt that "it was inevitable that they were cheated and fooled" since Mao, who presumably was in a much better position to know, had been fooled for such a long period of time himself.


In time, several unofficial alternative accounts of what really happened also emerged. One, for example, claimed that in the event that all those plots were aborted, a fallback plan was devised to 'launch a pincer attack from the north and the south with the help of the Soviet Union' against Beijing.[35] Another account asserted that Project 571 was Lin Liguo’s idea. Lin Biao did not agree with it because he had his own plot which involved conspiring with and launching an attack on Soviet Union and assassinating Mao in a secret underground military installation where Mao would hide out in times of an armed conflict with the Soviet. But before Lin could carry out the plot, Mao got wind of it and Lin was executed when Mao invited him and his wife to a banquet at the same secret underground military installation and blew up his limousine enroute with rockets fired at point blank. The crashed plane therefore carried only Lin Liguo and his associates.[36] Finally, there was no evidence that the assassination plot was actually carried out. Many experts questioned even the authenticity of the “571 Project” notebook and believe it to be falsified evidence designed to demonise Lin.[37]


Regardless of the authenticity of the official account, the Lin Biao's abortive coup attempt and his subsequent death in the plane crash on 13 September 1971 was without question one of the most important milestones in the decade of the Cultural Revolution.


A longer term legacy is that it casted a spotlight on Mao’s “hand-picked successor system” and led to the modification of the system by Deng who turned Mao’s “life and death power struggle mode into a more predictable and enlightened power transfer model”. Subsequently, Deng’s chosen successors – Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), Zhao Ziyang (赵紫阳), Jiang Zemin (江泽民) and Hu Jintao (胡锦涛) – were picked by Deng after consultations with political heavyweights.


As for Mao, he was visibly saddened by the betrayal and his health deteriorated. But more importantly, he took actions to correct the excesses of the Cultural Revolution by authorizing the rehabilitation of a number of the old power-holders in 1971-73 and supporting their return to their former posts within the government.[38] Among the most prominent of those rehabilitated was Deng Xiaoping, who was reinstated as a vice premier in April 1973.


Stage 4: Rectification & Purging of the Military after the Abortive Coup


Meanwhile, efforts to depoliticize and promote professionalism were intensified within the PLA. Lin Biao's closest supporters, including most of the top members of the PLA's General Staff, were systematically purged to reduce the Army's role in politics. For nearly two years after the fall of Lin, the vacant top posts on the General Staff remain unfilled.[39]


A mass campaign in criticism and repudiation of Lin Biao was also launched since the autumn of 1971 to decry his crimes to the point that "the entire Chinese people... even children" knew about Lin's conspiracy and death. However, in contrast to the Cultural Revolution in which he had justified rebellion, Mao now confined the anti-Lin Biao campaign within the regular Party apparatus. He did not allow any mass campaign on the scale of the Red Guard movements.


As has been the case with all previous rectification and purge campaigns, it has been necessary to distinguish between Mao's principal opponents at the top (variously identified as " political swindlers," " conspirators," and "traitors") and those at intermediate and basic levels of the military apparatus described as "good people who only made mistakes."


In the end, as many as a hundred of the central military leaders who dropped out of sight in 1971-72 have been purged as "conspirators". An equal number of military leaders at regional and provincial levels who were identified as hard-core supporters of Lin, despite not having partaken in the conspiracy, were also dismissed. A far greater number of military leaders have been charged with the lesser and forgivable offence of having been deceived by the "political swindlers" within the Lin group into pursuing an "ultra-Leftist" line in opposition to Mao's policies and programmes. The remedy for this lesser offence was for these military cadres, by means of the continuing "criticize revisionism and rectify work-style" campaign, to remould their thinking and, by engaging in self-criticism, demonstrate anew their loyalty to Mao and to the correct Maoist line.[40]


More generally, between the Lin Biao Affair in September 1971 and the 10th Party Congress in August 1973, the Chinese leadership made a concerted effort towards the restoration of the Party apparatus. Following Lin’s abortive coup, there was a steady erosion of the influence of the left-wing radicals. With the pragmatists gaining a freer hand, the policy process had become less polemical and more routine. In his comments at the Congress, Zhou specifically urged Party members to pay more attention to "questions of economic policy, concern themselves with the well-being of the masses" to fulfil the state plan for development.[41]


The end of the Lin Biao Affair thus set the stage for a smoother and speedier reconstruction process by the pragmatists led by Zhou and then later the rehabilitated Deng.

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[1] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). “The Fall of Lin Piao.” The China Quarterly, No. 55 (Jul. - Sep., 1973), pp. 429.

[2] See Byung-joon Ahn. (1974). Pg. 273.

[3] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). Pg 457.

[4] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). Pg 456.

[5] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). “The Chinese Army after the Cultural Revolution: The Effects of Intervention”. The China Quarterly, No. 55 (Jul. - Sep., 1973), pp. 450

[6] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). Pg 457.

[7] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). Pg 458.

[8] See Orville Schell. (1983). “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces.” The New York Times. May 15, 1983.

[9] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 429.

[10] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 429.

[11] See Edgar Snow. (1971). "The Army and the Party." in The New Republic, 22 May 1971, p. 11; Quoted in Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 444.

[12] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 430.

[13] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 440.

[14] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 433.

[15] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 431.

[16] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 430.

[17] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 431.

[18] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 431 – 432.

[19] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 433.

[20] See Barry Burton. (1971). “The Cultural Revolution's Ultraleft Conspiracy: The ‘May 16 Group’”. Asian Survey, Vol. 11, No. 11 (Nov., 1971), pp. 1039

[21] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 432.

[22] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). Pg 462.

[23] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). Pg 464.

[24] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). Pg 467.

[25] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). Pg 468.

[26] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 433 - 434.

[27] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 434.

[28] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 435.                                                                            

[29] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 435; See Byung-joon Ahn. (1974). Pg. 276.

[30] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 436.

[31] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 437.

[32] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 442.

[33] See Byung-joon Ahn. (1974). Pg. 277.

[34] See Minnie Chan. (2016). “Shock waves from Lin Biao plane crash still echo in lead-up to Chinese Communist Party leadership reshuffle.” South China Morning Post. 12 September, 2016.

[35] See Paul Loong. (1980). “1971 plot for land and air attack on Mao's train disclosed.” United Press International. November 17, 1980.

[36] See Orville Schell. (1983). “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces.” The New York Times. May 15, 1983.

[37] See Minnie Chan. (2016). “Shock waves from Lin Biao plane crash still echo in lead-up to Chinese Communist Party leadership reshuffle.” South China Morning Post. 12 September, 2016.

[38] See Byung-joon Ahn. (1974). Pg. 278.

[39] See Ellis Joffe. (1973). pp. 450

[40] See Philip Bridgham. (1973). pp. 442 – 443.

[41] See See Byung-joon Ahn. (1974). Pg. 283.

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