Goodbye Chairman Mao by Christopher New deals with one of the most fascinating and least known events of modern times; the Lin Piao Incident. For those of you unfamiliar, in September 1971, Mao Tse-tung’s successor, Marshal Lin Piao fled China in route to the Soviet Union but never made it any farther than Mongolia. His plane crashed landed, killing him and everyone on board.
The Chinese Communist Party still keeps a tight lid on the details regarding the Lin Piao (or Lin Biao in pinyin) Incident but there are is a somewhat coherent timeline of events. (Please note, this review will use the old Wade-Giles Romanization, as that is what was used in the novel.) Lin Piao was planning a coup against Mao, whom he feared was about to purge him. The plot was titled ‘Project 571’, the numbers 5-7-1 is a homophone for ‘armed uprising’. Army units loyal to Lin were to assassinate Mao by sabotaging his train, letting Marshal Lin take over. Unfortunately for the plotters, Mao changed his route at the last minute and the plan was discovered. Some theories point to Lin having assistance from the Soviet Union. The two countries had an acrimonious relationship since the Sino-Soviet split and engaged in border skirmishes between 1969-1971. Some even feared an all-out nuclear war between the two powers.
It is against this backdrop that Goodbye Chairman Mao is set. The novel opens with a Chinese expat murdered in London, which prompts an investigation by British Intelligence. They discover parts of a code that they are unable to crack, so they enlist the help of John Coomb, a retired crypto-analyst living in Hong Kong with his wife and daughter, who is dying of leukemia. Coomb is embittered against a cruel world and nuclear power in particular, but he reluctantly accepts the assignment. There is a theme, intentional or not, of the dangers of nuclear power and radiation. The thought that China and Russia could not only go to war, but nuclear war, was a very real possibility in the world of 1971. Hell, a fictitious Sino-Soviet Nuclear War is actually what causes the apocalypse in the Charlton Heston movie, The Omega Man.
Coomb goes to London, then to Moscow to attend a conference. Once there, he contacts a blackmailed Russian dissident who has information pertaining to Soviet plans in China. Again, nobody is 100% sure of what’s going on, only that something is happening. The general consensus is that the Soviets will attack China before President Nixon can visit in February 1972. Nobody seems to suspect a plot to overthrow Mao is really underfoot.
The novel switches back and forth from characters’ POVs, from Coomb to the Russians, and even Mao himself. It’s with the Chinese characters that the novel really shines. The nest of vipers that is 1971 Peking (Beijing) is so fascinating in its double-dealing, backstabbing, and power struggles, that it’s almost like a novel about the mafia and leaves you wanting more. In fact, I would argue the weak part of Goodbye Chairman Mao is that Coomb has to globetrot so often that you don’t really get a sense of place. I would have liked to see most of the action taking place in Hong Kong and Peking and didn’t feel a need for the constant location change.
Since Mao Tse-tung wasn’t assassinated in 1971, you can guess that Lin’s plot ends in failure. Returning to Hong Kong, Coomb cracks the code at the last minute and British Intelligence feeds the information to the Chinese government. His efforts don’t give him any personal rewards, however, as his daughter finally succumbs to leukemia and Coomb meets his end by Chinese triads working for the Russians. (again, I would have loved to see more of that!)
This downer of an ending seems to be very common in the 1970s, the height of the so-called ‘conspiracy thriller’, which is a personal favorite of mine. Oddly enough, Goodbye Chairman Mao was published in 1979, one year after another novel about the Lin Piao Incident, The Chinese Assassin, came out. These two books are the only fictional accounts I’ve read in English regarding the whole affair. Strange, since it’s so loaded with intrigue and twists, it should be fertile ground for thriller writers.
Goodbye Chairman Mao is long out of print but you can find it cheap off of Amazon. Try and get the paperback as the American hardcover artwork is not much to look at.
Christopher New Interview
Below is my exchange with Christopher New, who was kind enough to answer my questions about Goodbye Chairman Mao and various other things.
1) What inspired you to write this book? (Other than the Lin Piao Incident)
It wasn’t just the incident, but the fact that I was living in Hong Kong that kindled my interest. As you can imagine, it was a very hot topic there at the time.. Also I wanted to write a novel that wasn’t just about spies and action, but with a more serious undertone – Coomb is concerned about the state of the world, partly because of his daughter’s illness. A Kirkus review said it was a thriller ”in which the victims really bleed.’. That’s what I hoped other readers would feel.
2) How was Goodbye Chairman Mao received when it first came out? Was it an easy or difficult sell with your publishers? Was the general public aware of who Lin Piao was?
No, it went down well with the first publisher my agent approached. I’m afraid I can’t say how much the general public knew about Lin Biao, but the book was chosen for book clubs and received mainly good reviews, although there weren’t that many. Probably that means that the critics generally weren’t that interested, in China at that time – whether a book attracts attention or not depends on current whims and fashions.
3) The protagonist, Coomb, has a daughter dying of leukemia. Was there any specific reason you chose to give this character such grief? Was it a personal statement against nuclear power?
No, it wasn’t a personal statement about nuclear power, but the choice of leukemia had personal roots – one of my sons had a form of cancer two or three years before I wrote the novel. Fortunately, it was curable and cured. I suspect the cancer was related to the fact that he was born and for his first two years lived near the Aldermaston nuclear weapons centre. Apparently, there was a higher incidence of childhood cancers in that area than elsewhere in England.
4) The book explicitly states that Lin Piao’s coup attempt was in collusion with the Russians. Given what we’ve learned about the incident in the past few decades (which isn’t very much) do you still believe that?
It was just a conjecture, based on the fact that the plane he died in was flying towards the Soviet Union.
5) As mentioned, the Chinese government has kept a tight lid on many details regarding the Lin Piao Incident. Do you think we will ever get the whole truth?
I doubt whether anyone outside the top ranks of the CCP knows the whole truth of the matter. Whether that will ever be divulged is unknowable, at present at least.
6) Goodbye Chairman Mao was published in 1979, during a decade that, in retrospect, is known for heightened paranoia, unearthed conspiracies, and distrust in the government (Watergate in America and the alleged plots against Harold Wilson in the UK). The Lin Piao Incident falls into the ‘conspiracy thriller’ genre that was so popular at the time. Were you aware of this “conspiracy” trend while writing the novel or was it just a general zeitgeist at the time?
No, I never thought about that when I wrote the book. Indeed, I wasn’t aware of the ‘Zeigeist’. I was only interested in the story that could – or should – be told.
7) Similarly, Coomb is cynical and distrustful of the British authorities. Was this the prevailing attitude in fiction at the time? (i.e. have your characters sneer at idealism and be rather cynical in general?)
I don’t think of Coomb as sneering at idealism, but rather as being an idealist himself who is cynical of politicians in general and certainly a sceptic about many things. I never thought whether, and don’t now know if, that was the prevailing view at the time. But it is perhaps the prevailing view – with some justification – now.
8) At the end of the novel, Coomb falls into a coma and dies, three weeks after his daughter dies from cancer. Going back to the general pessimistic trend of the 1970s, was this decision in keeping with the times? That is, the protagonist saves the day but dies in the end for all of his efforts?
Again I can’t say whether there was a general pessimistic trend in fiction at the time, I suspect more that Coomb’s sceptical – or even cynical – pessimistic attitude was founded on my own at that time
9) In 1983, a strange book purporting to be from one of the Incident’s plotters was published; The Conspiracy and Death of Lin Biao by Yao Ming-le. It alleged, among other things, that Lin’s son, Lin Liguo, was the driving force being the plot and that it was he, not his father, who died on the plane in Mongolia. According to the book, Lin Piao was killed in Peking (Beijing). Are you familiar with this book at all?
Sorry, but I don’t know the book. By that time I was involved in writing Shanghai, which involved a great deal of research. However, whether or not Lin’s son was behind the ‘plot’ (we don’t really know for sure who was plotting what), we do know that the plane was heading for the USSR, which suggests some association between Lin Biao and Russia. And whoever was plotting what, it is clear that Lin Biao, as Mao’s heir apparent, was the major figure, whether as victim or villain.
10) I’ve long wanted to write a novel about the Lin Piao Incident but the only fiction I’ve found in English are yours and Anthony Grey’s The Chinese Assassin, published in 1978. Have you ever heard of it?
Strangely enough, no, I’ve never heard of that book either. But now I will certainly read both of them!
Christopher New is working on several projects but his next book, Chinese Spring, should be available in October 2018. You can find his website here: http://www.christophernew.com/