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Lin Biao: What Really Happened?
A party history scholar on the military during the Cultural Revolution, invading Hong Kong and the mysterious Mongolian plane crash
“You never forget when and where you heard the news. We treated Mao as a godlike figure. Sept 13 shattered that,” says businessman turned historian and writer Yu Ruxin of hearing the news of Lin Biao’s death.
The author of last year’s 1,300+ page, 2,000 footnote, two-volume Storm: The People's Liberation Army in the Cultural Revolution, Yu’s work examines the role of the Chinese military during the Cultural Revolution.
Traveling across China to interview over fifty retired cadres and officers, he argues that the role of the military during the Cultural Revolution has been understated, its role, in reality, eclipsing even that of the Red Guards in terms of scale and duration.
Over the years, Yu has advocated for a more candid, open approach to the historical retelling of recent history, as well as the importance of using primary documents - many of which are still in unopened archives - to get a better understanding of those turbulent years.
Speaking late last year with Joseph Torigian, an assistant professor at American University's School of International Service, Yu discusses his approach to research and his extensive use of contemporary documents to gain greater clarity around events such as the Sino-Soviet crisis, Project 571 and the September 13 Incident. ChinaTalk has translated excerpts of their conversation below.
Translated and edited by Callan Quinn.
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The three golden rules for party history scholars
Joseph Torigian: There aren’t many scholars these days who can write these sorts of works on party history. Can you talk a little bit about your research philosophy and what you think the most important skills that party scholars should learn are? What are the most common mistakes that people who research party history make?
Yu Ruxin: [With regards to] so-called research philosophy, other scholars have commented that I belong to the “textology school” of Cultural Revolution research. The textology school attaches comparatively more importance to unearthing historical materials, that is first-hand contemporary accounts such as documents, central government documents, tabloids, things from that time.
The second [characteristic of the textology school] is paying attention to details - “details determine success or failure” and “the devil is in the details”. My general summary of this so-called research philosophy is this: all my conclusions originate in historical facts. If you don’t have the material [to back up your claims], don’t say anything. In situations where you don’t know, don’t jump to conclusions. This is my personal experience in research.
The most important skill that scholars of party history should learn, I think, is that they should be intimately familiar with the contemporary setting. They need to understand the atmosphere of the circumstances and the time of the matter that is being discussed. Today, for example, the worship of Mao is very difficult to understand. But if we want to study the situation of the time, we have to know the circumstances of the time.
The second is the appraisal of historical materials and making comparisons between different materials to distinguish their authenticity and credibility. I think these are some skills that should be learned. Of the materials put in front of you, some are real and some are fake. How do you distinguish them? How credible is this piece of material? This skill – the ability to discriminate – decides the quality of the academic product.
And the third [is avoiding] one of the most common mistakes made by scholars of party history: relying too much on memoirs.
The entire archives of this historical period are not open at the moment. In a situation without first-hand materials, what researchers often rely on are memoirs. In a situation where there’s an absence of reliable materials, one can easily make subjective inferences.
So I think these are two of the chief troublesome aspects.
Was Mao going to invade Hong Kong?
Joseph Torigian: In your book the thing that surprised me most was that in June 1967 Mao had been considering military action to resolve the Hong Kong issue. One of your key footnotes there is “Notes of Interview with Li Weiying.”
Can you talk about this person? Why can his statement be relied upon? What did Mao actually want to do?
Yu Ruxin: In 1967, Li Weiying was the head of the Guangzhou Military Region Command Office. The Guangzhou Military Region Command Office head is the equivalent of a division-level cadre. After the establishment of the Guangdong Provincial Military Control Commission, he was office director of the Provincial Military Control Commission. So that was his position back then.
When I interviewed him he was already retired. His position before he retired was deputy director of the Political Department of the Guangzhou Military Region (the deputy director of the political department of a military region is an army-level position).
He provided me with two materials: one is a conversation between Zhou Enlai and Wen Baocheng. I quoted this on page 465 of the book. The other is a speech by Zhou Enlai and Huang Yongsheng, which is on page 470 of the book.
Additionally, I quoted a conversation between Mao Zedong and a member of the Politburo of the Communist Party of Ceylon (Sri Lanka), Sang Mugata Sang, who often came to China, on pages 463 and 464, within which Mao gave his take on the international situation that year.
That was the year of the Six Day War in the Middle East. The United Arab Republic, that is Egypt and Syria, attacked Israel. While the war was going on, Mao told Sang Mukta Sang that the US’s attention was only on the Middle East and it didn’t care what was happening in other places.
Because this war in the Middle East could drag on for a long time, all the US and the UK’s attention was on the Middle East region, and so they [the Chinese government] could go in for Hong Kong because it’s in the Far East.
He [Mao] thought that because all of their strength was there they would not be able to focus on anything else, so even Mao Zedong was thinking about regaining Hong Kong by military means. This possibility was reflected on June 3rd in an editorial in People’s Daily. I quoted it all in the book. It seems that if he wanted to take Hong Kong back, he might have to use military means.
But this war in the Middle East was finished after just six days. For the UAR, it was the equivalent of saying the fight couldn’t be won and the war ended. What this shows is that Mao’s estimation of the international situation at the time wasn’t accurate. The possibility of doing something in the Far East didn’t really exist. So Mao immediately proposed not doing it.
That was the situation for a few days, but as soon as the Six Day War was over Mao said to forget it. If this tentative plan wasn’t going to proceed, just call it off. But I personally think I made this course of events clear in one of my chapters. Why did Mao at that time first decide to do it, only to then decide not to? The reason is both the influence of the international situation and that he’d made a mistake in judgment.
Joseph Torigian: I’ve never heard that Mao considered using force against Hong Kong at this time before.
Yu Ruxin: We know that at the time the Hong Kong issue was an international issue. It wasn’t just a China issue because Hong Kong was still under British occupation. It was an international issue and in China at the time this was a diplomatic issue as a lot of speeches about the Hong Kong issue were made in the name of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs externally.
But actually the Hong Kong issue was influenced by the international situation. How we look at things in the past should be like this.
Exaggerating a crisis
Joseph Torigian: How would you rate Mao Zedong’s performance in 1969 during the Sino-Soviet crisis?
Yu Ruxin: To me, I don’t think Mao Zedong had a real [international] reason for engaging in small battles on Zhenbao Island, but there are other scholars who think that actually the threat from the Soviet Union was real. Essentially, this was a small border skirmish.
In February 1969, Mao, according to my estimation, deliberately created a tense atmosphere.
At the time the threat of the Soviet Union towards China didn’t seem as big as we later said. Were there truly a million soldiers at the Sino-Soviet border? We can research that. But in this situation we can also look at the Mongolian response to the Lin Biao plane landing there. It was very slow.
Furthermore, in Mongolia there weren’t many troops stationed there either; it was the same on the Sino-Soviet border. But Mao Zedong deliberately made use of the Zhenbao Island affair to create a tense atmosphere. On page 996 of the book I wrote a paragraph where I said that there is no one smarter than Mao Zedong.
He knew very well that an all-out war between China and the Soviet Union was never going to happen, but he needed to take advantage of the very limited border skirmishes between the two countries and make a big fuss of a small battle on Zhenbao Island.
Putting people on edge domestically diverted away from the social problems that had occurred due to the Cultural Revolution and consolidated Mao’s own power. That’s how I’d evaluate it.
Lin Biao’s Daughter The Key to What Happened with Lin Biao
Joseph Torigian: I think the most interesting document in your book is what Lin Liheng [Lin Biao’s daughter, better known as Lin Doudou] wrote on the 26th of October 1971 about the September 13 Incident [when Chinese Defense Minister Lin Biao fled and died in a plane crash in Mongolia].
Lin Liheng says that Lin Liguo [Lin Biao’s son] said: “Yesterday evening the director [Ye Qun, Lin’s wife] had to flee to the Soviet Union on a Trident plane. The chief [Lin Biao] refused to run but was forced to agree by the director... I have already sent someone to make contact with Soviet Union”.
Lin Liheng also says Lin Biao truly did know about Mao’s speeches in the south that were critical of Lin, something that historians have debated.
I’ve always been biased towards the argument that Lin Biao was taken away by force, but if what Lin Liheng’s account brings to light is true, then it was Lin’s choice. Should we believe Lin Liheng’s statements? Overall, how should we look [at these kind of] exposés from the Cultural Revolution era?
Yu Ruxin: I think making use of the 1971 documents really is very important because we can see what came before what Lin Liheng wrote in 1980. In March 1980 she wrote a document saying that from September 7 she had sided with the guards. What did they say to her that made her write this?
Lin Liheng was not really that close to the guard forces surrounding Lin. So why did she bypass family members and inform the guards? This is a serious step. It’s the equivalent of betraying her family. Why does she take this step? She (and [her ex-husband] Zhang Qinglin) don’t provide an explanation for this material in the eighties or even an explanation of what happened that caused her to take this step.
From reasoning logically, if no major events occur, she couldn’t have taken this step, right? But her documents don’t explain it.
The key reason as this document shows is that her younger brother told her something that quickly seemed to make her put righteousness above loyalty to her own family.
Her father was the vice premier and the second in command of the CCP. She abandoned all her family. In 2013, I did this “Looking Back at September 13” book, but at the time it was impossible for us to see materials from 1971. It was only in around 2019 that I was able to see them. From this material we can finally discover that her brother spoke with her about something which afterwards caused a series of reactions.
I really do trust in these documents, because I’ve just spoken about using methods of logical reasoning to understand problems. If what Lin Liguo spoke to her about was not serious, how could she betray her family members, particularly by reporting to guards she was not familiar with?
If we don’t believe the documents then what should we believe? Why would she report having taken this step? There must be a hugely significant reason that she felt that her father, mother and brother were not the same as her, that they couldn’t be trusted, right? So that is number one. They can’t communicate, they can’t talk, speaking is no use, so she goes and finds someone else.
The second then is that we can take the documents from 1971 and statements from Project 571 [the anti-Mao plan written by Lin Liguo, famously published by Mao during the Cultural Revolution] and use them to verify each other. Project 571 talks about their thoughts and their ideas.
In this document, Lin Liguo says that the first [order of business] is to kill Mao. If he can’t kill Mao, then he will leave. If Mao is killed, then afterwards they won’t have to leave. So he is consistent both in this and Project 571 about his dislike of Mao.
Then you also have Liu Jichun (deputy chief of the security department next to Lin Biao and in charge of Lin Biao’s peripheral guard) and Li Wenpu (Lin Biao’s chief of guard in charge of the guards at Lin Biao’s side), who can both corroborate each other’s recollections. According to Liu Jichun, Lin Liheng told this to him at the time, so she listened to her brother's remarks and then straight after spoke with Liu Jichun. Li Wenpu also remembers this.
But Liu Jiechun, and especially Li Wenpu, at that time didn’t dare believe what Lin Liheng was saying. If they had, how it ended might have been different.
So to recap, the first can be confirmed with Lin Liheng's actions at the time, the second with Project 571 and the third with the memories of the guards. Therefore, I believe in the authenticity of her material.
Then even more important is this document she wrote before October 26, within about a month and a half after September 13. In that half a month, Lin Liheng in fact had not yet reacted to this major event. She couldn't have had such a big reaction that she would go and make its contents up, right? This thing is more than 20,000 characters - I quoted 7,000. It’s impossible to make up such a story in this time period.
According to her circumstances and state of mind at the time, this is how I look at it. You just mentioned the other exposés. We have to analyze these other materials one by one. We can’t just say generally whether they are credible or not. We can only say how this material is and that material is. Analyzing them one by one can’t be generalized.
These revelations then I think are for the most part well-founded but some of them have minor surface problems, for example when it comes to He Long’s daughter, He Jiesheng, and Liu Shaoqi’s daughter, Liu Tao. At that time both were on the side of Mao’s revolutionary line and they both exposed their fathers.
This [Lin Liheng’s denouncements], like Liu Tao and He Jiesheng’s, might reveal things on the surface, but they couldn’t have known the struggles at the upper levels of government.
But it can show the problem in their attitude and it shows the attitude of the era: when it comes to choosing between Mao and their fathers, they frequently choose Mao’s side.
So it’s not only Lin Liheng doing this. Other people also do this sort of thing. The way we can look at it then is that this is a relatively common thing. If the time comes to topple their fathers, they will often stand on Mao’s side.
What really happened to Lin Biao?
Joseph Torigian: There are a lot of theories about the cause of Lin Biao’s plane crash. You use a lot of very important new evidence to reject these claims. Can you speculate as to why Lin Biao’s plane really did crash? What happened on that plane?
Yu Ruxin: I think the cause of Lin Biao’s plane crash was that they needed to make an emergency landing and it went badly.
Joseph Torigian: Why did they have to make an emergency landing?
Yu Ruxin: Why did they have to make an emergency landing? Right now I don’t know the reason. But the first thing we can rule out is that there was a fire on board. That didn’t happen.
It could be that in the darkness they couldn’t find an airport and had to make an emergency landing. I don’t know. Did they think they didn’t have enough fuel and so had to make an emergency landing? We don’t know the cause but we do know that they had to make one.
In China, the expert group was headed by Wang Hai. Their conclusion is that they had to make an emergency landing and it didn’t go well. The Mongolian investigation’s report simply denied they had made a forced landing. Wang Hai and his team never went to the crash site but they think it was a failed emergency landing. I think this inference may be closer to the facts.
But the crucial point is why didn’t the emergency landing go well? Was it a technical reason? Did the pilot deliberately not to a good job? Was there a subjective reason why he did this deliberately? Did he take it down on purpose? Or is it just because of technical objective reasons that he didn’t do it well?
Joseph Torigian: Your meaning is the possibility it was suicide.
Yu Ruxin: You can’t discount this kind of possibility. We can only say that there are two kinds of possibilities: the landing failed because of technical reasons, or it was done deliberately.
Based on a speech Deng Xiaoping later gave, he tends towards the second option, that that it was done deliberately. But it’s not easy for us to come to a conclusion. There isn’t enough evidence.
The report from the Mongolian investigation made very clear that their speed was too fast. Secondly, they didn’t let go of the fuel. If it was an emergency landing, they would have needed to slow down and all the oil would have to be drained. Neither of these things were done.
So you ask exactly what happened on the plane? According to the Mongolian investigation’s report, there are no signs to show what happened. So we have to infer what occurred. There is no evidence to prove a fight or something like that. Nothing.
If this was deliberate, he [the pilot] covered it up very well. While on the plane, he would have had to have said to Lin Biao and the others, particularly Lin Liguo, who was watching him, that he was making a forced landing and then abandon that at the last minute. It is a possibility.
Because Lin was the vice premier, the pilot flying the plane obeyed his orders to take off. For example, Lin Biao could have said that he was performing a special mission. It could be that to start off with the pilot believed Lin, but afterwards he started having doubts and because of this deliberately sabotaged the emergency landing. This is my own inference. It’s not necessarily correct.
Puzzling out the details
Joseph Torigian: In the afterward you said: “It’s true that most of the official archives related to the Cultural Revolution have not been fully opened. The truth of some events are still shrouded in mystery and there are still no small amount of secrets to be revealed. This cannot but leave some regrets.”
Which secrets make you the most regretful? Which are the most important?
Yu Ruxin: The writing of history in truth is a process of solving puzzles. The relationship between the military and the Cultural Revolution I think has already basically come to light. It's like Qin Hui said in the preface, that the book includes the truth of the September 13 Incident. In fact, it can be said that the truth has become clear today, but we still don't know some details.
There are some experts and Cultural Revolution history scholars who still don’t admit this and think there are many things still unsolved. I think that the big threads and the general situation about the relationship between the military and the Cultural Revolution are clear.
Personally, it’s the details that have not been solved that I want to turn my attention to next.
For example, Kang Sheng was a very important figure in the Cultural Revolution and I’m preparing to look at him more closely in the future. Before his death, why did Kang Sheng expose Zhang Chunqiao and Jiang Qing?
These days a lot of blame is poured on Lin Biao and the Gang of Four. Many of the bad things Mao and Zhou did were blamed on them. People are so focused on these so-called bad guys, including Kang Sheng, who was also supposedly a bad guy. But actually I discovered that Kang did protect some people in the Cultural Revolution.
Kang played a protective role in the CCP in the thirties and his importance was very great. Why did he later become a member of the Politburo of the Seventh National Congress of the CCP? He played a historical role.
It was the same during the Cultural Revolution. He killed many people, but he also protected some people. Why did he protect these people? His protectiveness towards some people is actually more than Zhou Enlai’s. So we have to analyze why he protects these people, and why he wanted to bring down some others.
These things are still in the process of exploration for me.
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