Darkness had fallen over Beijing's Tiananmen Square. During the afternoon martial music had blared from loudspeakers as thousands of students and schoolchildren rehearsed for the parade that would mark the 22nd anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on October 1, just two and a half weeks away. But now the square was quiet and all but deserted.
Suddenly the nocturnal calm was broken by the sound of racing engines as up to 50 black limousines swept into the square and pulled up to the Great Hall of the People, a building reserved for the most important government meetings. Out of the cars stepped the leading figures of China's government and ruling Communist Party - all, that is, except Defense Minister Lin Biao.
Later that same night, some 170 miles east of Beijing, a Trident jet airplane took off from an airport near the seaside resort of Beidaihe. Flying on a northwest course, the plane passed over the border with the Mongolian People's Republic and crashed about 2:30am. Inside the wreckage were found nine half-burned corpses and weapons, documents, and equipment that identified the aircraft as belonging to the Chinese air force. At the request of the Chinese government, the bodies were buried at the site of the crash.
The anniversary celebrations for October 1, which would have placed Lin Biao next to Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, were canceled without explanation. Lin's name as well as those of other high-ranking military commanders were no longer mentioned in the governmentcontrolled press.
These were the events of September 12-13, 1971 - as observed and reported at the time. But was there a link between the late-night gathering of China's leaders, the airplane crash the next morning, and the cancellation of the celebration? The story that emerged during the next dozen years is still not completely understood - at least, outside of China.
Reaching for the Top
A veteran military commander of the communist forces that had defeated Chiang Kai-shek in 1949, Lin Biao had been made minister of defense in 1959. Seven years later he was also named vice chairman of the Communist Party and in 1969 was officially designated as the successor to Chairman Mao. His rise was marked by apparently total dedication to Mao - for example, Lin was credited with compiling Quotations from Chairman Mao Zedong, the "little red book" carried by rampaging student Red Guards during the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution launched by Mao in 1965.
Directed against "those people in authority within the party who are taking the capitalist road," the Cultural Revolution mobilized China's youth in defense of communism. Coincidentally, it led to the ouster of Liu Shaoqi as head of state while reinforcing, Mao's supreme power as head of the Communist Party. When the political unrest threatened to erupt into bloody civil war, Lin stepped in with the military forces at his command to restore order to the troubled nation.
Watching from the sidelines was Premier Zhou En-lai, who disdained the futile ideological controversies of the Cultural Revolution and on1y desired to restore strength to China's faltering economy. But when Zhou began reappointing party functionaries expelled during the political unrest, he put himself on a collision course with Lin, who wanted the military to wield decisive power. Unlike Lin, Zhou realized the danger of being Number Two to the power-obsessed Mao and was content to bide his time as the Number Three or even Number Four in the power lineup.
No longer satisfied with his designation as Mao's eventual successor, the 62-year-old Lin made a bold move at a party gathering in August 1970. In shameless flattery, he first proposed that the constitution be amended to canonize Mao as a "genius." He next moved that the vacancy created by Liu Shaoqi's purge be filled and that Mao be named head of state as well as head of the party. If Mao declined, Lin urged that someone else - presumably himself - be named to the position. Even Mao balked at the first suggestion. "Genius does not depend on one person or a few people," he said with uncharacteristic modesty. "It depends on a party, the party which is the vanguard of the proletariat." And, in turning down the additional post of head of state, Mao declared that it should remain vacant. It was clear to all that the party chairman was displeased by Lin's transparent maneuvers.
Target: Chairman Mao
This rift between Mao and Lin, according to one theory, marked the beginning of a conspiracy that was to reach a climax on the night of September 12-13, 1971. "If there is no post of chairman of the state," Lin's wife and political confidant, Ye Qun, complained, "what can Lin Biao do? Where can he be put?" Even at age 77, Mao Zedong showed no signs of tiring or even thinking of stepping down from his supreme leadership of the country. Her husband had three choices, Ye Qun said: wait patiently for the inevitable death of Mao; give up his dream of power; or eliminate Mao and seize control of the People's Republic.
In the fall of 1970 Lin Biao sent his son, Lin Liguo, whom he had raised to a high-ranking air force position, 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. By the spring of 1971, the conspirators had a plan for a military coup that would topple Mao Zedong from the pinnacle of power to which he so tenaciously clung. It was code-named Project 571, since the Chinese words for these three numbers are also contained in the phrase "armed uprising." Mao was called "B-52" for the U.S. bomber. Lin was pro-Soviet Union and thus anything linked to the United States was an object of hatred to him.
Three attempts on Mao's life were tried: an airplane attack on the chairman's residence in Shanghai; the destruction of his private train en route from Shanghai to Beijing; the dispatch of an assassih 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 the Trident at the airport near Beidaihe.
Escape to the Soviet Union
The seizure and confession of the courier had implicated Lin in the conspiracy. Uncertain as to the extent of the defense minister's support among the military establishment, Mao and Zhou En-lai called the late night meeting at the Great Hall of the People. As 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. He had spent three years there recovering from World War II wounds and was reasonably certain of at least ideological support from his Russian friends for the challenge to Mao. Instead, Lin Biao and his party all died in the crash in Mongolia.
That, at least, was the version of the story first reported in the press outside of China and more or less confirmed the next year by the Chinese government. A different and far more shocking account appeared in 1983 with publication in the United States of a report smuggled out of China and attributed to an insider given the pseudonym Yao Ming-le.
Staging a Mock War
According to Yao, there were two separate conspiracies. The first, Project 57 1, was organized by Lin Liguo and merely called for Mao's assassination. This was cancelled by Lin Biao in favour of a more elaborate plan code-named Jade Tower Mountain for the cluster of luxurious villas outside Beijing inhabited by the power elite. There Mao was to be trapped.
Lin's dangerous 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 En-lai into "protective custody," eventually having them killed, and seize power for himself.
Then, in July 1971, a startled world learned that U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger had secretly visited China and negotiated with Zhou En-lai for an easing of the tension that had marked relations between the two countries since the communists came to power in 1949.
Early the next year President Richard Nixon was to visit China. 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 En-lai 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.
Dinner at Chairman Mao's
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, 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.
Zhou En-lai personally verified that the charred bodies were indeed those of Lin Biao and Ye Qun, suggesting to the chairman that a proper explanation for the defense minister's disappearance be concocted so that Lin would not end up "looking like a hero." Without emotion over the death of the man who had served him and the Communist Party for more than four decades, Mao told the premier to handle the details of the cover-up as quickly as possible.
In this account of the conspiracy, it was Lin Li-guo only who fled in the Trident. When pursuing Chinese fighters launched a successful missile at,tack, the plane crashed just over the border in Mongolia. Later, the Chinese authorities let stand the general assumption that the parents as well had perished in the crash - a much tidier story than that of a dinner party ending in death.
Whichever version one chooses to believe, Mao had eliminated his rival. The next year he welcomed President Nixon to Beijing, faithful Premier Zhou En-lai at his side. At his death in 1976, the 83-year-old Mao Zedong still controlled the China he had helped create. To the very end he had avoided sharing power or designating a successor to his rule of the world's most populous country.