A hallmark of communist military culture is the ruthless purge of the most senior commanders who are considered able but simultaneously threatening to the supreme leader. During the Great Purge of the 1930s, Stalin purged three of his five Red Army marshals, thirteen of his fifteen army commanders, and eight of his nine admirals.
Not to be outmatched, the supreme leader of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) also has a similar bloody history of military purges. Of the ten People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) marshals that Mao Zedong designated in 1955, three of them died tragic deaths in a direct purge by Mao, and nine of them were “struggled against” by Mao for harboring impure Marxist-Leninist thoughts and questionable loyalty to him, a precursor to physical elimination.
September 2021 marks the 50th anniversary of one of the bloodiest military coups and purges in modern Chinese history, a failed military coup against the Chinese communist dictator Mao Zedong, oddly enough by his heir apparent, Marshall Lin Biao. Mao’s subsequent purge of high military commanders was swift, callous, and Stalinesque.
During the height of the horrid madness called the Cultural Revolution, Mao went on a binge of ruthless purges of his most senior enablers, including former president of the PRC, Liu Shaoqi, and his deputy, Deng Xiaoping. In the summer of 1971, Mao’s paranoia grew and his intentions were to eliminate his most loyal heir apparent Marshal Lin Biao, who was largely responsible, however ironically, for the creation of the Mao Personality Cult.
The base of Marshal Lin Biao’s power, the PRC’s second in command, resided mainly in the CCP’s People’s Liberation Army. Unlike many of Mao’s previous victims, Lin decided not to die easily without a fight. Lin Liguo, Lin’s 26-year-old son who exercised effective control of the PLA’s Air Force, worked out a coup plot, called the Project 571 Outline, against Mao which contemplated the assassination plan on Mao’s life in order to save his father’s.
According to most accounts, the coup plan was botched. However, before Mao acted, Marshal Lin took his wife Ye Qun, who was a member of the CCP Politburo, son Lin Liguo, and a few loyalists on a dramatic escape from Mao, hurriedly boarding a Hawker Siddeley Trident aircraft allegedly to defect to the Soviet Union. According to most accounts, the plane crashed in Ondorkhaan, Mongolia, in the wee hours of the September 13, 1971, killing all onboard.
The Lin Biao Incident, as it is known in PRC history, triggered a swift purge by Mao of the PLA’s high command. Thousands of senior military officers, including the leadership of the PLA General Staff, the PLA Air Force, and the PLA Navy, were ruthlessly purged, and many executed.
The purge culture inside the PLA still thrives to this day. At the time of his death, Lin Biao was the highest-ranking military man in the PRC, serving as the vice chairman of the CCP Central Military Commission, the highest command authority of the People’s Liberation Army, which is the world’s largest armed force. The civilian general secretary of the CCP is the chairman of the CMC by default.
Xi Jinping, the current supreme dictator of the PRC and the general secretary of the CCP, has even outdone Mao in his ruthless purge of the PLA leadership. Since 2014, thousands of senior PLA officers have been purged. First on his chopping block were the two highest-ranking PLA commanders who ran the world’s largest armed force for over a decade until Xi’s rise to supremacy in 2012, vice chairmen of the CMC, Generals Xu Caihou and Guo Boxiong.
General Xu, purged in 2014, died in agony one year later; General Guo is now serving a life sentence in a communist prison. Included in the thousands of senior PLA officers promoted during Xu and Guo’s tenure are seven of the PLA’s highest ranking military generals. Xi’s military purge is so thorough that the entire senior military staff working under his predecessor, General Secretary Hu Jintao, has been purged.
The PLA has many enemies, but one of the biggest has always been its own purger-in-chief. Xi Jinping is no exception.
The top photo shows General Secretary Hu Jintao with his entire senior military staff including the two vice chairmen of the CMC. All are marked “arrested.” Circa 2011. The bottom photo shows Mao, second from left sitting row, with his key subordinates in Yenan. Everyone, except Mao and Zhou Enlai, 2nd from right top row, would be purged or “struggled against.” Circa 1940. Credit: Xinhua, sans annotations.