The Conspiracy of Lin Biao: Glory, Mystery, and Death

Mao Zedong and Lin Biao. | Courtesy of Chineseposters

Most of the time we are told stories filled with mystery, and these stories usually have a conclusion. However, some stories are filled with mystery and their conclusions are yet another mystery. This is exactly what happened with the story of Lin Biao’s death. Lin Biao was Chairman Mao Zedong’s Vice-Chairman, who was a Chinese political leader and distinguished man who achieved glory for being one of the most honorable men in China, after fighting in many battles, such as the Chinese Civil War in the 1930s and 1940s, as well as in the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s. Lin Biao deeply believed in Mao’s communist movement and was supportive of his political ideals completely. Yet, on September 13, 1971, the plane in which Lin Biao was aboard, mysteriously crashed after supposedly running out of fuel while flying over Mongolia. The Chinese reported that no person aboard the Trident 1-E aircraft had survived.1

One word from Chairman Mao is worth ten thousand from others. His every statement is truth. We must carry out those that we understand as well as those we don’t. – Lin Biao2

A photograph of Lin Biao | Courtesy of Paulnoll

Lin Biao, originally named Lin Yurong, was born in Huanggang, Hubei province, China on December 15, 1907. Growing up, he was deeply affected by the differences between social classes and cultural upheavals within China. As a teenager, he became interested in the socialist and communist movement in China, and in 1923, he joined the Socialist Youth League. Lin rapidly became a well-known name in China, after being pivotal to the victory of the Chinese Civil War (1927-1950).3 But the Chinese Civil War was just the beginning of his support of the leader of the Chinese Communist Party, Chairman Mao. Years later, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), he led the youthful group named Red Guards, a group known to spread Mao’s communist propaganda and cult beliefs, but unfortunately Lin Biao had died years before this came to an end. Even though, until the very last days, Lin had always supported Mao completely, becoming known as “Mao’s best student” and “closest comrade-in-arms.”4 This devotion towards Mao and his movement eventually led him to be officially named and recognized as “Mao’s heir” within the Communist Party.5 And by this point, Lin Biao had become the second most powerful man in China, second only to Mao himself.6

The mystery in Lin Biao’s death lies in the fact that, while Mao’s government accused Lin Biao of being a traitor, a report from Soviet officials who inspected the wreckage of the downed aircraft (because it had crashed on the Soviet Union’s border), reported that no body over the age of fifty was found.7 This suggested that Lin Biao had never been aboard that plane to begin with. But then, what had happened to Lin Biao? Had he been killed days before the airplane crashed? Furthermore, if there was no body found, then what explains his disappearance? Actually, it is said that Mao invited Lin Biao and his wife to a dinner at his house after finding out of his betrayal, planning to execute him. Lin Biao eventually discovered his plan while having dinner, so he fled Mao’s home. Lin Biao couldn’t manage to get away too far. In no time, his grand limousine, known as the ‘Red Flag,’ was soon being chased by Mao’s elite Security Unit 8431. Instantly, the Security Unit caught up to Lin Biao, shooting down and destroying the limousine after an altercation, in which both Lin and his wife died at the scene. Of course, this version was never revealed to the Chinese people.8

The front page of the “Project 571” Outline | Courtesy of Wikimedia

The story of Lin Biao is so mysterious because even until April 1, 1969 during the Cultural Revolution, when he was the leader of the People’s Liberation Army, Lin Biao effectively led the party. And by 1971 he was already rumored to have planned a coup leading to this death in the same year. Some historians believe that the only reason why Lin Biao disappeared was because Mao became too wary of the power Lin Biao had–but nothing has been proved nor found. 9 Furthermore, it is believed that Lin Biao had a similar fear but he feared that Mao would replace him with somebody else, instead of him being the one who would eventually inherit Mao’s position. Hence, Lin speedily planned Mao’s assassination and a coup d’etat to assume power. In spite of their many years of close comradeship, several political differences came between them. While Lin Biao preferred having an army administrating the country, Mao preferred and wanted to rebuild the Communist Party as a new power base. Therefore, by the early 1970’s, the two had drifted apart.10 Many conspiracy theories behind Lin Biao’s “Project 571” began to emerge. One theory was that Lin was not acting alone, but in collusion with his family, specifically his son Lin Liguo, who was one of the masterminds in planning the coup to establish a new government in Guangzhou, China.11 The plan was drafted and planned under the code “Project 571” as a play on words, which, if read in Chinese, is pronounced “wu gi yi” and when spoken means “armed uprising.” The project had everything coded, and Mao was mentioned under the code name “B-52.” The plan was to exploit Mao’s tour of South China and to execute him aboard his private train. However, Mao returned to Beijing safely and the plan was never carried out.12 Soon after Mao discovered their plan, Lin Biao and his family boarded a plane and attempted to flee China. Mysteriously, the airplane crashed on September 13, 1971 while flying over Mongolia, where everyone aboard died, including Lin Biao, or so it was reported by Mao’s government. But again, the Soviet’s report, upon inspecting the crash, stated otherwise.13

The crashed Trident 1-E aircraft near the Sino-Soviet border that Lin Biao and family members were said to be aboard | Courtesy of Shanghaiist

Thus, Lin Biao’s death continues to be vague and ambiguous. Decades after his death, the puzzle pieces are scattered, and the missing pieces continue to hinder knowing the full story of Lin Biao and whether he really did plan to assassinate or overthrow Mao. Perhaps it was solely a plan of his son Lin Luguo. But how did Lin Biao really died? Was the conspiracy of the “Project 571” real? How is it that a man who had followed Mao for so long had drafted a plan to assassinate the one person to whom Lin Biao himself had supported and fought for all his life? Due to Chinese influence and story cover-up, as well as Mao’s control in the government, no further evidence to answer so many questions can be found…and we’ll probably never know. One thing remains in history, is how the story of Lin Biao remains a tale of glory, mystery, and death.

Mao and Lin Biao smiling. They had a close relationship in which Mao saw Lin Biao as one of his most trusted men | Courtesy of Laurenream
  1. Orville Schell, “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces,” The New York Times, May, 15 1983. Accessed February 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/15/books/a-chinese-puzzle-missing-some-pieces.html.
  2. BrainyQuote, s.v. “Lin Biao”.
  3. Encyclopedia Britannica, s.v. “Lin Biao Chinese Military Leader” by Edward J.M. Rhoads.
  4. Encyclopedia of Modern China, 2009, s.v. “Lin Biao 1907–1971,” by David Pong.
  5. Encyclopedia of Modern China, 2009, s.v. “Lin Biao 1907–1971,” by David Pong.
  6. Orville Schell, “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces,” The New York Times, May, 15 1983. Accessed February 21,2019.https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/15/books/a-chinese-puzzle-missing-some-pieces.html.
  7. Orville Schell, “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces,” The New York Times, May, 15 1983. Accessed February 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/15/books/a-chinese-puzzle-missing-some-pieces.html.
  8. Orville Schell, “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces,” The New York Times, May, 15 1983. Accessed February 21, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/15/books/a-chinese-puzzle-missing-some-pieces.html.
  9. “Lin Biao” New World Encyclopedia, July 23, 2018. http://www.newworldencyclopedia.org/entry/Lin_Biao#Attempted_coup_and_downfall
  10. Orville Schell, “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces,” The New York Times, May, 15 1983. Accessed February 21,2019.https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/15/books/a-chinese-puzzle-missing-some-pieces.html.
  11. Encyclopedia of Modern China, 2009, s.v. “Lin Biao 1907–1971,” by David Pong.
  12. Orville Schell, “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces,” The New York Times, May, 15 1983. Accessed February 21,2019.https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/15/books/a-chinese-puzzle-missing-some-pieces.html.
  13. Orville Schell, “A Chinese Puzzle Missing Some Pieces,” The New York Times, May, 15 1983. Accessed February 21, 2019.https://www.nytimes.com/1983/05/15/books/a-chinese-puzzle-missing-some-pieces.html.
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26 Comments

  • I have little knowledge of political history of China but this was an interesting article to read yet not really surprised why his death remained a mystery. It is most probable the Chinese government covered up the story. As you stated, the world will never know the truth and all we can really do is speculate. It is peculiar that China stated he died in a plane crash but the Soviets stated otherwise, again which is not really surprising.

  • Great article! The word “conspiracy” alone is what pulled me in. I always find it tragic when one’s body is never recovered. This story reminds me a lot of Amelia Earhart in that she too went missing when flying a plane over an ocean. Although, her story did not have the alternate theories of being purposely assassinated. I don’t think that I will every truly understand why governments feel the need to cover these things up instead of handling matters properly. It makes me wonder what other conspiracies are out there.

  • I had never heard of Lin Biao before reading your article, but my knowledge of China, especially it’s history is limited. You did an awesome job describing the life of someone who had such a mysterious death. Mysteries are some of my favorite genes to read, and your article was awesome! I wonder if he really even died in the same time frame of the crash or if he was able to hide his identity and move/ live elsewhere.?

  • I am fascinated with any conspiracy or mystery story and had never heard of Lin Biao. Upon reading the first paragraph of this article, Lin Biao sounded like he was a man of honesty and integrity. It is crazy how his body was never found and there are different accounts of what might have really happened to him. I can’t imagine being betrayed by the one person that I confide in the most.

  • Nice read, I did not know about the story of Lin. I believe Mao is definitely responsible for the disapearance of Lin, fear of growing power and competition irritates authoritarian leaders who often resolve to assasination as it is a very effective way to eliminate competition even when the competition is a dear friend and a loyal follower.

  • Congrats on your nomination for a award! This was a great read from beginning to end. Like I have said in other comments I love murder mysteries, criminal minds and piecing together crimes. I had neither heard about Lin Bao and Mao Zedong. This was a very fascinating read though! I saw Lin Boa as true honest and loyal. Although there are no distinct specific evidence that links Mao to Lin’s death I still see him as being responsible.

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