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Rachel Lu

Media Read: Beijing Would Prefer to Forget China’s War with Vietnam

(AFP/Getty Images)
(AFP/Getty Images)

On Feb. 17, the 35th anniversary of the Sino-Vietnamese War of 1979, Chinese online news portal Sina released a patriotic slideshow of historical photos to commemorate the date. The text accompanying the images called the war the Defensive Counterattack War Against Vietnam, its official name in China, and insisted that “Vietnamese forces repeatedly provoked” their Chinese opponent. But the article is noteworthy not for what it says, but that it existed at all. The images attracted more than 8,400 shares and 1,800 comments on Sina Weibo, China’s popular microblogging platform, with one young woman wondering why Chinese mainstream media “almost never mention this period in history.”

She was not exaggerating: China’s state-owned media remained almost completely silent on the anniversary of the nearly month-long conflict, which ended with no clear victor, and was the most recent war fought by China. (The war began after Deng Xiaoping, China’s then-paramount leader, promised the newly friendly United States that he would “spank” the Soviet-backed Vietnamese regime for sending troops to Cambodia to topple the genocidal Khmer Rouge government.) Recent articles on Vietnam in People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece that essentially declared war on its southern neighbor with an editorial on Feb. 16, 1979, lacked any mention of the conflict. A Jan. 21 People’s Daily article about anti-Chinese feelings in Vietnam avoided mention of any armed tussle between the two countries in the late 20th century, instead blaming the negative sentiment on Vietnamese’s “sour” and “contradictory” attitude towards historical Chinese cultural influences and current economic dominance. Another People’s Daily piece from Feb. 13 profiled the bustling town of Mong Cai on the eastern Chinese-Vietnamese border, which cleared over $2.6 billion worth of import and export goods in 2013, without mentioning that it was the scene of fierce fighting 35 years ago.

But Chinese military enthusiasts, armchair historians, and veterans have not forgotten about the war. Hot debates about conflict still rage on in corners of the Chinese Internet, notwithstanding official silence. Many Internet users commenting on the war see China’s casus belli as illegitimate, even as they honor the departed young combatants — thousands of Chinese died, though the exact numbers are unknown — who netizens feel were sent into a proverbial meat grinder. One user asked whether it was worth it to “sacrifice so many young lives to support the Khmer Rouge butchers.” Another remembered feeling excited as a high school boy listening to the radio as shelling began, but continued, “looking back, the war was totally unjustified.” For their part, ardent nationalists writing on Chinese social media often downplay China’s relationship with Khmer Rouge, and instead attribute the casus belli to Vietnam’s poor treatment of ethnic Chinese living there, its alleged provocations along shared borders with China, and possible expansionist tendencies to consolidate Cambodia into a greater power in Indochina under the USSR’s backing. “What’s justice?” One nationalist asked rhetorically on Sina Weibo. “Whatever protects our motherland’s interests is justice!”

Vietnam also suppresses memories of the war. On Feb. 17, the Vietnamese government deployed aerobic dancers to break up anti-Chinese protests in the capital city of Hanoi, while on Feb. 12 U.S. outlet Voice of America quoted an anonymous senior Vietnamese editor as saying the country’s watchdog issued “confidential instructions” to restrict coverage of the 35th anniversary of the war. China and Vietnam normalized relations in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR — Communist Vietnam’s longtime patron — and Vietnam’s withdrawal from Cambodia. Bilateral trade and economic cooperation have boomed since then, though tensions have risen recently because of territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Many Chinese media outlets covered the anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, but not that of Chinese Vietnam war veterans agitating for compensation. On Feb. 13, one Weibo user posted photos of a group of veterans holding up flags in Foshan, a large city in southern Guangdong province, claiming that police had kept close watch on participants, which he claimed numbered over 1,600. A few dozen veterans gathered in front of a government building in central Hunan province on Feb. 17, according to a blog post written by a self-identified Beijing reporter and posted on Sina, claiming that they had been “abandoned” and shortchanged in veteran benefits. The blog post also shows a banner, with sadly ironic text. “The martyrs who gave their life defending their sacred territory,” it reads, “will never be forgotten.”

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Rachel Lu

Rachel Lu is a co-founder of Tea Leaf Nation. Rachel traces her ancestry to Southern China. She spent much of her childhood memorizing Chinese poetry. After long stints in New York, New Haven and Cambridge, she has returned to China to bear witness to its great transformation. She is currently based in China.
  • hai_nguyen

    Fair and relatively comprehensive summary of what was an unnecessary tragedy of Deng Xiaoping’s eagerness to please America attitude. A couple of pointers may also help your readers with more background:
    . Why would Vietnam – barely toughed out the totally, destructive 30 years war with the US, still faced with extremely difficult ideological reconciliation, suffered greatly under the US led economic blockage and deteriorating condition of an already collapsed economy – ever want to 1st invade Khmer Rouge’s Cambodia and 2nd provoke China with border intrusions?
    . Two most quoted statements by Deng, preceding this cross-border invasion were “We’ll teach the double faced Vietnam a lesson” and “The PLA troops should spend the morning in the capital of Beijing and the afternoon in the capital of Hanoi”. When taken together with the fact that the 1/2 million Chinese army was ordered to retreat with savage destruction of human and materials, barely 50 miles into Vietnam (220 miles from Hanoi) – Vietnam suffered another foreign invasion but China clearly failed to accomplish any goal at all.
    . While it’s true that the Vietnamese government has suppressed any public and unauthorized expression of war reminder by the opposition, in order to please the former foe and keep peace with the northern neighbor – the domestic mass media has been allowed to run a mixture of short to very in-depth reports where atrocities and nationalistic views were fully displayed. Under pressure, some government officials even explained that commemoration of this short war should not be when the invasion started (Feb.17) but when China was expelled (Mar. 06). Let’s wait and see!

    Deng Xiaoping
    Deng Xiaoping
    Deng Xiaoping

  • Orientalist100

    Great roundup! Links to Weibo posts don’t actually get us to the posts, but rather to the user pages (from where, in most cases, it’s tough to find the post referenced in your piece)…

  • Zen my Ass

    Didn’t know about it myself: good read, thanks for the article. I bet China is trying to seep it under the rug. It was an unnecessary war fought against a suffering country and, on the top of that, party of the same family…

  • Guest

    It is extremely important that Vietnam NEVER allows China to forget its imperialist attrocities, just like China does with Japan.

  • gusman

    De facto enemies, China and The Paper Tiger both supported the Khmer Rouge, politics is all BS.

    Khmer Rouge butchers
    Khmer Rouge butchers

  • CruiseFactoryData

    Hi Rachel. In the modern context the war itself is of little consequence, where you haven’t taken the article which is of enormous interest to China watchers is, that the PLA debacle in Vietnam lead to a massive reorganization within the PLA and the purging of Generals and other officers. It is this revamped and revised structure of the PLA which emanated from the reforms driven by that slap in the face to China’s post Korea military might that we are now coming to grips with in modern Asia and Africa.

    The patriotism and opportunism that drove the conflict still exists, the willingness to sacrifice vast numbers of troops seems to be there but is the new force a better fighting unit. There has been no period in history where a great power has experienced economic ascendency and combined a massive military investment process with an assertive foreign policy that hasnt ended with them testing their hard power.

    What is of concern is that modern technology is much more destructive and the rethoric from US pundits about the pivot to Asia indicates nothing has been learned from the failures of the 1970s and from the US Middle Eastern imbroglios other than “we have massive fire power & are yet to meet our match.”

    Has corruption, cronyism and a lack of combat eaten the PLA from the inside like it has regional govt or not? It is a pretty high stakes game and the US would do well to be a little less poker (its only 5 cards) and bit more mahjong.