Victims of earlier Sino-Vietnamese tensions. Ethnic Chinese refugees from Vietnam are confined to a dockyard camp in Hong Kong in 1979. Source: Flickr
As Beijing ratchets up pressure on Hanoi over its claims to the South China Sea, it appears distinctly forgetful of its disastrous 1979 invasion of its militarily skilled neighbour.
A level of ignorance of the conflict is hardly surprising, as the event has been swept from the collective memory by Beijing’s selective use of history.
While it regularly attacks Tokyo for Japanese atrocities during the Second World War, four of the most widely used school history textbooks avoid any mention of the 1979 invasion of Vietnam. The month-long war was launched by paramount leader Deng Xiaoping supposedly to punish Hanoi for toppling Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, which relied on China as its only significant ally. Some Chinese historians have, however, argued that the entire invasion was an attempt to distract the military while Deng consolidated his grip on power.
Unlike China’s battles against the Japanese, which are regularly depicted on Chinese television, the Vietnam war is airbrushed from history, to the extent that few Chinese university students have heard about the conflict.
Victims of the forgetfulness include thousands of veterans who have complained of being denied benefits and adequate compensation and many have been detained for protesting.
“I don’t think the government values us enough,” said Li Zizhong, 60, a veteran from Qingdao who has been petitioning the authorities for six years to increase his 350 renminbi (US$57) monthly pension. “Apart from that I have nothing.”
Contrast this with the detail with which Chinese textbooks delve into the Korean War, which is officially known as “the War to Resist America and Aid Korea”. China’s textbooks omit the key fact that the war started when North Korea tanks rolled across the border into South Korea in June 1950. China’s children instead just read that the conflict “broke out”.
Elements within China’s military now appear to be pushing for a more forceful response to Hanoi in the South China Sea, according to sources in Beijing.
“The People’s Liberation Army is ready,” an unnamed source told Reuters. “We should go in and give them a bloody nose like Deng Xiaoping did to Vietnam in 1979.”
Pedants might scoff at the incredible misreading of history where the shambolic PLA was routed by hastily deployed Vietnamese militias, exposing the disarray caused by Mao Zedong’s purges. However, that would be to miss the aggressive intent expressed towards a neighbour and key trading partner.
Another PLA source said the mood was bellicose.
“The United States will do what it has to do. We will do what we have to do,” the source said. “The entire military side has been hardened. It was a huge loss of face,” he said, referring to last month’s damning international court verdict in The Hague, which dismissed almost all of China’s maritime claims.
Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman Yang Yujun said the armed forces would resolutely defend Beijing’s territory, maritime rights, peace and stability, while dealing with any threats or challenges.
The war of words is increasingly being stepped up to demand what sounds increasingly like an actual war.
“The Chinese military will step up and fight hard and China will never submit to any country on matters of sovereignty,” blogged Liang Fang, a scholar at the military-run National Defence University, on the subject of the UN-backed court’s verdict.
Back in 2014, after several South China Sea skirmishes, one Chinese editorial called on Beijing to teach Vietnam the “lesson it deserves”. The language echoed Deng’s 1978 vow to teach Hanoi a “lesson”.
Memories of the 1979 war in Vietnam are also censored.
Vietnam has the most impressive military record of any nation after 1945, defeating three permanent members of the UN Security Council: France, the US and China.
While Vietnam proudly celebrates its defeats of French and American forces, Hanoi remains largely quiet about the Sino-Vietnamese war, aware that when a smaller nation defeats a larger neighbour, it must tread carefully.
But the silence has not kept the Vietnamese from simmering with animosity towards their historic foe.
After the 1975 US withdrawal, pogroms were conducted against Vietnam’s ethnic Chinese community while Vietnamese forces drove Beijing’s hideous ally in Cambodia towards the Thai border. Vietnam’s alliance with one of China’s rivals, the Soviet Union, further increased tensions.
In the winter of 1978, more than 80,000 Chinese troops were sent across the border into Vietnam. Chinese Deputy Defence Minister Su Yu boasted of being able to take Hanoi in a week but fierce resistance from battle-hardened Vietnamese units deployed across the frontier’s distinctive karst limestone landscape. The Chinese were slaughtered by militias from positions used for centuries to repel northern invaders.
“More Chinese soldiers were getting killed because they were fighting like it was the old times,” said Vietnamese veteran Nguyen Huu Hung, who saw the PLA being mown down in huge numbers near Lang Son. “They were in lines and just keep moving ahead … they didn’t run away.”
Collective amnesia in Beijing and Hanoi about the realities of conflict could go some way to explain the casual way the Chinese are willing to stoke the tensions over a few rocks in the South China Sea.