Mao’s defense minister and the latest heir apparent, Lin Biao, paid with his life for Mao’s abrupt change of policy towards America in 1971. For three decades, Mao and Zhou Enlai had excoriated America with epithets like “the capitalist devil,” and “the evil imperialists.” The idea of making peace with the capitalist devil and evil imperialists raised numerous eyebrows in the CCP, including those of Lin who was a dogmatic communist.
Lin had worked closely with Mao since the 1940s. He had made significant contributions in promoting Mao’s cult of personality. In April 1969, Mao had declared that Lin was his "closest comrade-in-arms and successor.” But when Mao proposed his radical policy of rapprochement with America, Lin lost faith in Maoism. He denounced Zhou Enlai’s meeting with Kissinger. He argued that America and the Soviet Union were colluding to contain China. He publicly stated that Mao should never agree to meet Nixon.
In September 1971, the supporters of Mao revealed that Lin was killed in a plane crash, while he was trying to flee China. They alleged that Lin was plotting a coup against Mao. The coup plot was called Project 571, and it entailed the establishment of a military regime under Lin’s leadership after the assassination of Mao. When the coup was discovered and the plots to assassinate Mao were foiled, Lin tried to flee to the Soviet Union in a British made Trident aircraft which ran out of fuel over Mongolia and crashed, killing everyone aboard.
Following his death, Lin was condemned as a traitor by the CCP. He was accused of being a pro-Soviet “revisionist and traitor,” “a capitalist roader,” “an enemy of the peasant class,” and “a swindler like Liu Shaoqi.”
Lin’s son, a pilot in the Chinese air force, who had political ambitions, was accused of being part of the plot to kill Mao. He was arrested. During a search of Lin’s son’s property documents were found in which Mao was being contemptuously described as an “old B-52 that soars unseen in the sky and drops bombs on political rivals on the ground.” Mao was being compared to the B-52s that the Americans were using to bomb the communist strongholds in Vietnam.
However, there are many holes in the official Chinese explanation for Lin’s death. The Soviet and Mongolian officials, who were the first to arrive at the scene where Lin’s aircraft had crashed, reported that there were bullet holes in the aircraft. Many of the charred bodies that they recovered, including Lin’s body, had bullets in them. There was probably a gunfight inside the aircraft and then the pilots lost control.