Decades after his death, military genius Lin Biao remains a mystery

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 27 September, 2009, 12:00am

No man in the history of the People's Republic has embodied so many contradictions as Marshal Lin Biao - who to this day remains a mysterious figure to most people.

Lin, born in Hubei in 1907, was once the young Bonaparte of what was then the Red Army, rising through the ranks and leading the army from victory to victory. Lin was made an army corps commander at the tender age of 23. He became the chief commander of the Red Army's elite 1st Army Group at 25. By then, Lin was already a feared and respected name on the battlefield.

He played a pivotal role in leading the communist army to the final victory in the civil war against the Kuomintang. After suffering initial reverses, he scored a decisive victory and conquered the whole of northeast China. His army then carried all before it, fighting all the way from ice-bound Heilongjiang to the tropical island of Hainan . Of the three major battles the communists won in the civil war, Lin was responsible for two of them.

His unrivalled military genius was widely recognised in the party and the army, making him the youngest of the republic's 10 great marshals. In 1969, at the height of the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong hand-picked Lin to succeed him. For millions of Chinese back then, Lin represented the bright future of the People's Republic.

But cracks soon started to appear in the seemingly iron-clad alliance between Lin and Mao. When his bitter and ill-fated power struggle with Mao came to light, the Chinese public was stunned.

Lin came to be seen as the master of political intrigue, whose brilliance was only matched by his ruthlessness and ambition for power. He represented the greatest challenge to Mao in all the Great Helmsman's brutal struggles for power, before and after the founding of the republic. At one point, Lin was said to have hatched a military coup to kill Mao, although few historians now believe the validity of the story.

Then came his tragic end - details of which still remain one of the biggest mysteries in the history of the People's Republic. In 1971, Lin, together with his ambitious wife and only son, Lin Liguo , died in a plane crash in Mongolia while trying to flee China and defect to the nation's bitter enemy, the Soviet Union. His original destination was Hong Kong, but Lin had to abort the plan at the last minute after he was betrayed by his daughter, Lin Doudou - a brainwashed admirer of Mao.

His death shocked the nation to its core. Although Mao emerged a winner from the struggle, the Great Helmsman was a spent force, mentally exhausted and traumatised. It was his last power struggle. Mao died five years later, leaving behind a weak heir, Hua Guofeng , who could not have been more different from Lin.

Lin's name became a national taboo. His images and name were painstakingly removed from official records. His close associates were purged from the party and the military.

But privately, Lin remains the most talked about political figure in China. Stories about him are widely circulated and the tales grow with each telling. Moreover, after decades of ignominy, Lin has recently appeared to be on the verge of rehabilitation.

His name and photographs appeared in official media in the run-up to the 80th anniversary of the People's Liberation Army on August 1, 2007. At an official exhibition held in Beijing that year, photos of Lin and a brief biography were seen alongside the other nine marshals.

Although it is still short of an official rehabilitation, many mainland writers and historians have now begun openly to write about Lin. Articles on the late marshal are everywhere on the internet, with many challenging and questioning the official accounts of events.

Increasingly, people come to see Lin as a tragic hero caught up in a faulty political system. Some even suggest that Lin never really had any plan to topple Mao and their conflict was mainly brought about by Mao's own paranoia. A close examination of the so-called military coup allegedly prepared by Lin to assassinate Mao suggests it was a hare-brained plan that smacked of amateurism. It is highly unlikely that a veteran strategist like Lin would come up with such a plan.

Probably, it was Lin's clash with Mao's ambitious wife, Jiang Qing , that drove the two men apart. Even more importantly, it was his growing prestige and influence within the army that made Mao nervous. None of Mao's political rivals in the past commanded such a degree of respect and loyalty in the army. Mao was never comfortable with that.

'Lin's tragedy is the result of the political system in Mao's era, when there was no rule of law or mechanism for smooth power transfer,' said a retired PLA senior colonel who spent dozens of years studying the late marshal.

'Such a thing will never happen again. None of the military generals these days could ever have such an impact on China's politics or enjoy such prestige like Lin and the fellow marshals. They have no battle records to talk about.'