16 February 2019
Wang Bingzhang played a pivotal role in the development and successful launching of China's first ever satellite, the Dongfanghong-1, in 1970. Photo: Weixin
Wang Bingzhang played a pivotal role in the development and successful launching of China's first ever satellite, the Dongfanghong-1, in 1970. Photo: Weixin

General Wang Bingzhang: A tragic and forgotten hero

On May 31, a private cremation memorial service for Wang Bingzhang (王秉璋), a former lieutenant general of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), was held at a hospital in Beijing.

Several well-known public figures sent wreaths to offer their condolences to Wang’s family. Among them were Mao Yuanxin, the nephew of former leader Mao Zedong, and Lin Doudou, the daughter of former PLA marshal Lin Biao (林彪).

The ceremony didn’t receive any media coverage, nor do the vast majority of mainlanders know anything about Wang. Many simply haven’t even heard of him at all.

General Wang was a tragic and forgotten hero. Not only was he an outstanding military commander during his lifetime; he was also instrumental in the successful development of China’s own ballistic missiles and satellites.

But despite his enormous contributions to the People’s Republic, Wang literally disappeared from all official records and documents of the Communist Party of China (CPC) and the PLA after 1971, and lived basically as an undocumented man until he died in 2005 at the age of 91.

As a former top PLA general, his mysterious disappearance from official records is indeed highly unusual.

Even more mind-boggling is that after his death, his body had remained in the morgue of the PLA 301 Hospital in Beijing for a total of 12 years before he was finally cremated last month.

Given the fact that Wang was such a meritorious Red Army veteran and a former PLA general, the way his body was handled after his death was indeed very strange, not to mention that his family members have been forbidden to speak anything about him in public over the years.

So what really happened to Wang? Why did the party go to such great lengths to try to erase him from public memory?

Joining the Red Army in 1931 at the age of 17 and fighting in almost every major battle against the Kuomintang troops during the civil war, Wang proved himself to be a highly talented field commander, and was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general in 1949 and appointed as the chief of staff and deputy commander of the PLA air force.

However, Wang’s biggest contribution to his country was his untiring effort, sound leadership and dogged perseverance in securing the success of China’s ballistic missile and satellite programs when relations between Beijing and Moscow quickly deteriorated in the late 1950s.

As a result, the Soviet Union withdrew all of its scientists, experts and technicians from China almost overnight.

Without Moscow’s help, China’s own missile program could have ground to a complete halt, had it not been for Wang’s effort and perseverance.

His hard work and refusal to accept failures did pay off at last: In November 1960, Wang, in collaboration with famous scientist Qian Xuesen (錢學森), succeeded in launching China’s first short-range ballistic missile, which was called “DF-1”.

After that, Wang and his scientific team continued to work on China’s own satellite program. And through his efforts, in April 1970, China successfully launched its first-ever satellite, the “Dongfanghong-1″ (東方紅1號).

Unfortunately, at the height of his career, Wang’s fate suddenly took a nasty turn, and his life was never the same again.

In September 1971, after his attempted coup to overthrow Mao had failed, Lin Biao immediately fled Beijing, only to die in a mysterious plane crash in Mongolia.

Lin Biao’s plot and his death proved to be a watershed in Wang’s life. After the abortive coup, Mao immediately mounted a massive witch-hunt against Lin Biao’s accomplices in the party, and began to purge the military of Lin’s influence and network.

Once serving under Lin as his lieutenant during the civil war, Wang was identified as a suspected accomplice of Lin’s, even though the truth is he knew nothing about Lin’s conspiracy at all, let alone participated in it.

Even though he continued to deny complicity in the coup and insist that he was framed, Wang was convicted and jailed for 10 years without proper trial.

It wasn’t until 1982, when the Central Military Committee of the CPC officially dropped all treason charges against him, that Wang finally got released.

Ever since he became free again and up until his final years, Wang continued to appeal to the party leadership to vindicate him and clear his name officially because, as he put it, he didn’t want to be remembered for something that he didn’t commit.

However, despite his continued appeals, the Central Military Committee refused to overturn its verdict, and maintained that Wang was complicit in the 1971 coup in the presence of “substantial evidence”.

Over the years, Wang’s family members have remained highly indignant that the party refused to vindicate Wang even after his death despite his remarkable contributions to his country, only that they are afraid to express their grievances publicly.

In fact, their refusal to formally bury Wang could have been a silent protest against his wrongful conviction by the party.

Unfortunately, there are hundreds of thousands of people like Wang, who have devoted their whole lives to the socialist cause, but who have ended up being victims of brutal political persecution.

Like Wang, many of them didn’t live to see their own vindication.

This article appeared in the Hong Kong Economic Journal on June 2

Translation by Alan Lee

[Chinese version 中文版]

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Hong Kong Economic Journal contributor

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