Solving a Chinese Puzzle
Lin Biao's final days and death, after two decades of intrigue
In September 1971, a mysterious series of events rocked China's enigmatic leadership. The outside world knew only that Chairman Mao Zedong's "closest comrade in arms" and anointed successor, Lin Biao, leader of the 2.9 million-strong Chinese military, had suddenly disappeared from public view. After months of international speculation about his fate, China announced that Lin had hatched an abortive plot to kill Mao, tried to flee to the Soviet Union and died when his plane crashed in Mongolia.
The Chinese have never offered any hard evidence that Lin was on the plane that crashed, and China watchers have never been sure what really happened to him. One Chinese account, published under a pseudonym in the West in 1983, claimed Mao had had Lin and his wife, Ye Qun, killed in Beijing and that their son, Lin Liguo, had tried to escape by air. Others think Mao ordered the Lins' plane shot down over Mongolia.
Revelations. Now, a U.S. News investigation in China, Mongolia, Russia, the United States and Taiwan has solved one of Communist China's greatest mysteries. The six-month probe's key findings:
Lin's dissatisfaction with Mao prompted him to make at least two attempts to reach out to the Chinese Communist Party's archenemies, Taiwan's Kuomintang (box, Page 53).
Lin, his wife and son were all killed when their plane crashed in Mongolia.
The Lin family was not en route to asylum in the Soviet Union at the time of the crash. Their plane was flying back toward China.
Lin's wife and son may have forced Lin to flee against his will.
Communist Party leaders in Beijing knew at least two hours in advance that the Lin family planned to flee but chose not to act.
A member of the Communists' Red Army since its creation in 1927, a veteran of Mao's Long March and a corps commander at age 23, Lin began his climb to power in the late 1950s, after a falling-out between Mao and then Defense Minister Peng Dehuai. In the following decade, Mao's disastrous Cultural Revolution shattered the Chinese Communist Party's leadership and catapulted the People's Liberation Army and its leader, Lin, to the pinnacle of political power.
But Lin and his second wife, Ye Qun, a former assistant in the Central Research academy whose political ambition rivaled that of Mao's wife, Jiang Qing, soon found that although China's Constitution named Lin as Mao's successor, it did not give him immunity from Mao's jealousy and suspicion. On July 1, 1971, two years after the Ninth Party Congress anointed Lin, the People's Daily warned that, "the gun must never be allowed to command the party." Lin's mysterious death two months later eliminated Mao's last serious rival.
The story of Lin Biao's final days begins in the remote stretches of Mongolia. At about 2:30 on the morning of Sept. 13, 1971, Dugarjavyn Dunjidmaa was guarding the explosives dump at a fluorite mine near the east Mongolian town of Bekh when the whine of turbines made her look into the night sky. Moments later, recalls Dunjidmaa, who now lives in a felt-covered yurt in Bekh, "I saw the plane with flames coming from its tail as it dropped. From my post, it was possible to follow the plane all the way down to its crash site [9 miles away]." So ended the flight of the British-built Trident 1E, with the Chinese Aviation number 256 painted on its wings.