Histories of World War II are seldom complete without mention of the Italian Fascist Grand Council’s vote of no confidence against Benito Mussolini on July 25, 1943, or the assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler by some of his army officers on July 20, 1944. Less understood in the Western world is the long-term plot to overthrow or assassinate Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung by one of his most renowned generals.
In China the plot is referred to as the “9-13 Incident,” after the date in September 1971 when the man behind it died. Prior to that, the plotters referred to it as the “5-7-1 Project,” since the Chinese words for “armed uprising” and “5-7-1” are pronounced the same way. Ironically, the man who instigated, planned and led the coup attempt, Marshal Lin Biao, had been handpicked by Mao to be his successor just a few short years before.
Born at Huanggang, in Hubei province, Lin joined the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1925. Having fought in multiple wars against the Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang and the Japanese, Lin Biao succeeded Peng Dehuai as defense minister when he was 52. Peng’s firing in October 1959 had come about as a result of a letter he had sent Mao criticizing his chief’s Great Leap Forward, the industrial program that had been designed to put China on par with its principal rival powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. After enduring eight years of torture at the hands of the Red Guards and then being sent to manage a small farm, Peng died in 1974.
Seeking to benefit from the excessively outspoken Peng’s misfortune, Marshal Lin set about enacting a cunning, stealthy plan that he hoped would succeed in the course of a decade. His first step, similar to that taken in Hitler’s Germany, Mussolini’s Italy and the Soviet Union under Josef Stalin, was to foster an exaggerated “cult of the personality” of Chairman Mao. In May 1961, Lin, as defense minister, ordered the Liberation Army Daily newspaper to print a short quotation from the chairman’s writings on its front page: “The thought of Mao Tsetung is the highest manifestation of Marxism-Leninism.” He encouraged the entire populace to “read Chairman Mao’s books, listen to Chairman Mao’s words, and be Chairman Mao’s good soldiers.”
Having established the importance of a central figure in party affairs, Lin planned to step into that position himself. In his epic 1994 tome The Private Life of Chairman Mao, Mao’s personal physician, Dr. Li Zhisui, noted of Lin, “His conviction for the Chairman seemed to me less a matter of genuine conviction than a stepping-stone to power.”
Simultaneous with the issue of the book Quotations From Chairman Mao in 1964 came another two-pronged offensive, launched in tandem by Mao and Lin. The first was the start of the Cultural Revolution to root out Mao’s opponents within the CCP—amid which Lin purged the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) of some 10,000 officers in 1968. The second program was to find a practical way to combat what both Mao and Lin feared most—a preemptive nuclear strike from either the Soviet Union or the United States, in that order.
Mao was forced to recognize that his defense minister’s oft-stated belief that the guerrilla tactics used to defeat the Japanese and the Kuomintang would work against such nuclear superpowers as the United States and the Soviet Union was outmoded. Others in China’s top leadership cadre wanted to train the armed forces to fight with modern tactics and weaponry.
At about the same time, Lin initiated secret negotiations with the woman who hoped to succeed Mao as chairman: his wife, Jiang Qing. Together she and the marshal waged the Cultural Revolution with such slogans as “Overthrow everything” and “Wage civil war.”
“With Lin Biao approaching the height of his power, all China was becoming militarized,” Dr. Li wrote. “Charged with restoring the country (as the Red Guards ran rampant) the Army had taken control of government offices and work units at every level of Chinese society. The Party secretaries who had once controlled China’s provinces had been removed, replaced by provincial military commanders, and soldiers were in charge of the bureaucratic hierarchy from the top to the bottom, even in the villas frequented by Mao.
“Led by Lin Biao, the whole country was studying Mao’s thought, and because the People’s Liberation Army excelled in the study of Mao, everyone was learning from the Army, too. Everyone wanted to bask in the glory of the military. We all wore military uniforms. Even I did. Only Mao, still insisting on the comfort of his old, baggy clothes, held out. He wore a uniform only for his rare public appearances, to show his support for the Army.”
Now, slowly, perhaps imperceptibly at first, Marshal Lin began making his moves. In March 1969, China and the Soviet Union fought a series of border clashes over Zhenbao (Treasure) Island, and in the next month Mao publicly named Lin his successor as chairman at the 9th Party Congress.
Next, at the Lushan Conference of August 1970, Lin proposed that he be named vice chairman of the CCP, with Mao remaining chairman. In essence, this would have resulted in two chairmen at the head of the Chinese government. Mao would have none of that, and began making his own moves to preserve and even increase his power. One day he surprised his physician with some portentous words: “Think about this. We have the Soviet Union to the north and the west, India to the south and Japan to the east. If all our enemies were to unite, attacking us from the north, south, east and west, what do you think we should do? Beyond Japan is the United States. Didn’t our ancestors counsel negotiating with faraway countries while fighting with those that are near?
“The United States and the Soviet Union are different,” Mao continued. “The United States never occupied Chinese territory. America’s new president, Richard Nixon, is a longtime rightist, a leader of the anti-Communists there. I like to deal with rightists. They say what they really think—not like the leftists, who say one thing and mean another.”
Meanwhile, even as he was planning the secret negotiations of July 1971 that would result in Nixon’s historic visit to China in February 1972, Mao began making his domestic moves to counter his errant marshal who, he avowed, was a rightist within the CCP who he “never fully trusted.” Unknown to the chairman, his own personal pilot was brought inside the full range of the plotting, which included kidnapping, poisoning, possibly shooting him or even bombing his special train. A suspicious Mao was already catching on to his defense minister’s intentions, however. He changed his travel plans constantly and secretly, keeping his own bodyguards in the dark. He began reducing the military cadres surrounding him and demanded more than ever a strict accounting kept on the knowledge of his whereabouts. Seemingly only his physician came to notice the change in the relations between the chairman and his defense minister. In addition to Mao’s being an opium and morphine addict, Dr. Li claimed he suffered from chronic bronchitis at the time, and recalled the chairman plaintively asserting of Marshal Lin, “He wants my lungs to rot.”
The doctor himself first met Lin in March 1966. “He was one of the country’s 10 marshals and reputed to be a brilliant leader—strong, decisive and tough,” he recalled. “I shared the general admiration for his military genius….When we were escorted into his room, Lin Biao was in bed, curled in the arms of his wife, Ye Qun, his head nestled against her bosom. Lin Biao was crying, and Ye Qun was patting him and comforting him as though he were a baby. In that one moment, my view of Lin Biao changed—from bold and brilliant military commander to troubled soul, unfit to lead….Lin Biao was obviously mentally unsound, but Mao was promoting him to the highest reaches of power. Soon he would be hailed as Mao’s ‘closest comrade in arms.’ One day Lin Biao would be governing the entire nation.”
Informed of Lin’s mentally unstable condition by Dr. Li in 1971, Mao launched a personal speaking tour of CCP cadres across the country, in an effort to reclaim his surrendered mantle of authority. His decision to act could not have been more timely, as Lin’s patiently laid plot was about to reach its critical climax.
On the same day Mao arrived back in Beijing, September 12, 1971, a telephone call came through that Marshal Lin had arranged to commandeer a jet plane and fly to the Soviet Union. While Mao and an extra battalion of security troops were sequestered at the Great Hall of the People—where a few months later he and Premier Zhou Enlai would meet with President Nixon—Lin’s armored limousine sped through the streets with police in hot pursuit, a hail of bullets in its wake.
As the commandeered plane took off, Zhou recommended that it be shot down with a missile. “Rain will fall from the skies,” Mao replied calmly. “Widows will remarry. What can we do? Lin Biao wants to flee. Let him. Don’t shoot.”
The chairman’s decision proved to be prescient. “There was no need to shoot,” recalled Dr. Lin 23 years later. “We soon learned that the plane had taken off in such haste that it had not been properly fueled. Carrying at most one ton of gasoline, the plane could not go far. Moreover, the plane had struck a fuel truck taking off, and the right landing gear had fallen off. The plane could have difficulty landing, and there was no co-pilot, navigator or radio operator on board.”
Initial reports indicated that the marshal had planned to set up a separate government at Guangzhou, but at 2 a.m. word came through that the missing aircraft had entered Outer Mongolian airspace, disappearing from Chinese radar. Informed of that, Mao responded, “So we’ve got one more traitor.”
The following afternoon, Zhou reported that an aircraft with nine persons aboard— a woman and eight men—had crashed in the Ondórhaan area of Outer Mongolia, with no survivors found. On September 16, three days later, dental records confirmed that one of the corpses was that of the missing marshal. “That’s what you get for running away,” asserted the man Lin had tried to replace and possibly kill.
Thus ended the only attempt to overthrow Chairman Mao since 1949—or at least the only one known to the West. Its failure notwithstanding, his old comrade in arms’ act of betrayal left Mao crestfallen, and he would never appear atop the gate of Tiananmen Square thereafter.
The formal inquiries into Lin Biao’s plot continued for two years after his death. Mao Tse-tung died on September 9, 1976, at age 84, and his discredited wife Jiang Qing died at 77 in 1991, allegedly a suicide. As Mao had predicted, the rightists within the CCP did rise to power after his death, though one wonders if they would remain there if The Private Life of Chairman Mao, with its revelations on the party’s Machiavellian behind-the-scenes intrigues, were ever published in Mandarin and Cantonese throughout China.
Originally published in the May 2006 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.