September 18, 2023
From The Red Phoenix

Mao Zedong and Lin Biao on November 10, 1966.

By Camilo Lazo, Red Phoenix correspondent, Illinois.

A review of Yao Ming-Le’s The Conspiracy and Murder of Mao’s Heir.

In his political diary, Albanian Marxist-Leninist Enver Hoxha commented that the official Chinese government version of the death of Mao Zedong’s onetime heir, People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Marshal Lin Biao, sounded like “an episode of James Bond.” (E. Hoxha, Reflections on China, vol. II, 1979, p. 645)

Indeed, the story put out by the Xinhua News Agency with its tale of exploding oil rigs, artillery attacks, runaway trains and pitched gun battles abroad out-of-control airplanes which then crash to Earth has all the makings of an Ian Fleming thriller. Needless to say, the Albanian statesman, and world opinion greeted the received version of Lin’s death with extreme skepticism.  For over forty years the true events surrounding the fall of one of China’s major twentieth century political figures – commander of the PLA, leader of the Cultural Revolution, Mao’s heir apparent – has remained a mystery.

In 1983 the silence was broken by the appearance of the book The Conspiracy and Murder of Mao’s Heir, by one Yao Ming-Le (a pseudonym), which challenged the Chinese government’s version of Lin’s last days. Drawing on classified materials, interrogation reports, confessions, and unpublished memoirs, the picture Yao painted of the former PLA Marshal’s demise not only surpassed the cloak-and-dagger sensationalism of the official story, but drew on other literary metaphors beyond that of Fleming. Yao’s image of the Lin Biao Affair treads Shakespearean ground and culminates in a penultimate event that is straight out of Mario Puzo. Two decades after its original publication, Yao’s book was reissued by Collins of London. 

Although its version of events is not above criticism itself, The Conspiracy and Murder of Mao’s Heir deserves a second look in that it offers an interesting explanation not only for Lin’s fall but for why, so many years after the fact, the details remain a closely guarded secret.

The Facts

Born in 1908, Lin Biao attended the Whampoa Military Academy, which was a nerve center of radical, nationalist, and anti-imperialist activism in the 1920s. Lin first joined Mao in 1928 and quickly became one of the Communist’s most distinguished field commanders in the civil war against the Kuomintang. He participated in The Long March and made a name for himself as an authority on guerrilla warfare.  A battlefield injury in 1938 caused Lin to retire from active service. He took up the position of President of the Political-Military Academy at Maoist headquarters in the mountains of Yenan.  Between 1939 and 1942 he represented the Chinese Communist Party in the Soviet Union.

After World War II, when fighting broke out again between the Communist and Nationalist forces, Lin led victorious campaigns in Manchuria and northern China, taking Beijing in 1949. Moving his troops southwards, Lin secured the city of Wuhan and Guangzhou.  Thereafter he served as head of the South-Central Party Bureau and Military Region, a position he maintained until 1956. 

An undisclosed illness kept Lin out of active political involvement throughout the late 1950s. He played no part in the Korean War. 

C. Dietrich. (1986). People’s China. pp. 38-39, 80.

By 1959 Lin had returned to the political center stage, rising to the position of membership in the Chinese Communist Party’s Political Bureau’s Standing Committee and holding the Defense Ministry portfolio.  Lin became a staunch advocate of maintaining the PLA’s guerrilla traditions versus the modernization and professionalism urged by PLA commander Peng Dehuai. In 1962 Lin succeeded Peng as commander of the PLA and immediately began a rectification program among officers and troops. Lin’s reforms stressed political education within the PLA and emphasized revolutionary fervor over equipment and weaponry, ultimately culminating in the abolition of ranks in the PLA. (Ibid., pp. 59, 62, 80, 148.)

Lin became the main proponent of the People’s War Thesis which argued that the anti-imperialist struggle was a worldwide movement in which every national liberation movement must rely on its own masses – a theory which conveniently allowed Vietnam to go unaided in its battle against US imperialism. (Ibid., p. 171.) In 1965, Lin published the article “Long Live the Victory of People’s War” which stated that

“. . . to make a revolution and to fight a people’s war and be victorious, it is imperative to adhere to a policy of self-reliance, rely on the strength of the masses in one’s own country, and prepare to carry on the fight independently even when all material aid from the outside is cut off. . . ” 

W. Chai, ed. (1972). Essential Works of Chinese Communism. p. 396.

Lin worked assiduously to develop a cult of Mao in the PLA. Lin compiled some of Mao’s writings into the handbook, The Quotations of Chairman Mao, and ensured that the text was mass produced and distributed; first within the PLA, later throughout the People’s Republic.

Come the Cultural Revolution, the PLA, under Lin’s command, effectively took over the role the Communist Party once played in ruling the country.  After removal of former President Liu Shaoqi at the Ninth Communist Party Congress in 1969, Lin rose to near total military power and placed second in rank behind Mao Zedong in the Party. The Party constitution was amended to specifically name Lin as Mao’s successor. (Dietrich, pp. 179, 181, 185, 198-207.)

So much is known.

The Official Story

In the fall of 1970 Lin sent his son, Lin Liguo, who held rank in the air force, on a secret mission to China’s largest cities. His task: to organize a network of loyal and trustworthy military officers, to be known as the Joint Fleet. This circle was to be the nucleus of a conspiracy to organize a military coup that would topple Mao Zedong from power and serve as Lin’s 18th Brumaire. 

The plot, code named Project 571 (the Chinese characters for this number contain the phrase “armed uprising”), the conspiracy was a fiasco from the get-go. Three attempts were made on Mao’s (“B-52” in the plotter’s language) life: 

  • an airplane attack on his residence in Shanghai; 
  • the firing of artillery against his private train en route from Shanghai to Beijing; 
  • the dispatch of an assassin disguised as a courier to his home in Beijing.

When all three failed – the last on the evening of September 12, Lin Biao, his wife, his son, and several other conspirators scrambled to board a Trident jet plane at an airport in Beijing.

The seizure and confession of the assassin implicated Lin in the plot. 

Mao and Premier Zhou Enlai called a late-night meeting at the Great Hall of the People to assess the situation. 

While they deliberated, the Trident took off. 

Although Lin had planned to fly south to gather military support for his coup, he apparently changed his mind once he was airborne and decided to seek refuge in the Soviet Union. As the Trident approached the Mongolian border, a gun battle broke out inside the plane causing it to crash. 

Lin Biao and his party all died in the crash. (Ibid., p. 213-17; Hoxha, pp. 612, 641-51, 733-45.)

Yao’s Reinterpretation

Few accepted the official version of the events of September 1971. Some historians have suggested that Mao had become uncomfortable with the power Lin and the army had acquired and planned a purge. In this scenario, Lin and his high military commanders, sensing Mao’s fading support, attempted a preemptive coup d’etat. 

Yaos’s account is far different. According to Yao, there were two separate conspiracies. The first, Project 571, was organized by Lin Liguo and merely called for Mao’s assassination. 

This was cancelled by Lin Biao in favor of a more elaborate plan code-named Jade Tower Mountain for the cluster of villas outside Beijing. There Mao was to be trapped. Lin’s scheme called for secret assistance from the Soviet Union in staging a mock attack on China. This would give him the excuse to declare martial law, take Mao and Zhou into “protective custody,” eventually having them killed, and seize power for himself.

The main impetus for the plot was development of two factions within the Chinese leadership. The first led by Zhou wanted reconciliation with the United States and some kind of alignment with US imperialism with the end of “modernization” of the economy and society. 

The second, led by Lin himself, foresaw a rapprochement with Soviet Revisionism and the continuation of Lin’s “People’s War” policies. More and more Mao supported the Zhou position – and that meant the end of Lin’s power and influence.

The announcement that US President Richard Nixon would visit China the next year sent the plotters in motion. The apparent reconciliation with the United States and a further deterioration of the already soured relationship with the Soviet Union made it imperative that Jade Tower Mountain be launched as soon as possible. The date chosen was the day Mao returned from a trip south, on or about September 11.

Meanwhile, however, Zhou Enlai had apparently tricked Lin’s daughter, Lin Liheng, into revealing her brother’s conspiracy if not that of her father. Zhou alerted Mao to the danger and the two set a trap for Lin.

The “Last Supper”

According to Yao, on the evening of September 12, Lin Biao and his wife were guests at a festive welcome home dinner for Mao at the Chairman’s Jade Tower Mountain villa. 

Mao himself launched the celebration by uncorking a bottle of imperial wine sealed in a Ming dynasty vase 482 years earlier. At the banquet, delicacies flown in from all across China were served. At one point, Mao used his chopsticks to pluck tiger tendons from a platter and place them on Lin’s plate. 

After a dessert of fresh fruit, Lin’s wife, Ye Qun, mentioned that it was growing late; she and her husband should be leaving so that the chairman could rest from his trip. But Mao seemed reluctant to break up the jolly gathering and urged them to stay on another half hour. Just before 11pm. Mao saw the couple to their waiting car. Minutes later, on the road descending from Mao’s villa, rockets fired by an ambush party recruited from the Chairman’s private guard destroyed the car and its passengers.

Later, Zhou Enlai personally verified that the charred bodies were indeed those of Lin Biao and Ye Qun, suggesting to Mao that a proper explanation for the defense minister’s disappearance be concocted so that Lin would not end up “looking like a hero.” Mao told the Premier to handle the details of the cover-up as quickly as possible. 

In Yao’s account of the conspiracy, it was Lin Liguo who, on learning of his father’s death, fled in the Trident. When pursuing Chinese fighters launched a successful missile attack, the plane crashed just over the border in Mongolia.


Ultimately, Yao Ming Le’s version of the Lin Biao Affair is as difficult to prove as the official story is difficult to accept. It does, however, have the virtue of explaining the reasons for the rift between Mao and Lin in solid political terms (not merely based on “jealousy” or “ambition”) and points to the logical consequence of Mao and Zhou’s turn to the United States. 

Moreover, it provides a rationale as to why China’s present rulers, the direct heirs of Zhou’s protégé Deng Xiaoping, would wish to keep the truth about Lin Biao’s last days hidden and buried. 

Although the truth may never be known, Yao Ming-Le’s The Conspiracy and Murder of Mao’s Heir is compelling reading and offers much potential insight and food for thought into one of contemporary history’s turning points.

Categories: China, History, Literature, Media & Culture, Revolutionary History, World History