2009 is a year of anniversaries for China. It’s been 60 years since the formation of the modern People’s Republic of China and the Chinese Communist Party’s formal ascent to power, an event sure to be lauded by the current regime and is to include the country’s biggest military parade ever and even a motion picture. Other anniversaries are less welcomed; 50 years ago, a revolt rocked Tibet and the Dalai Lama fled to India, where he’s been a thorn in the CCP’s side ever since. Even more clouded in controversy is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests and massacre that loom this coming summer. Amid all of this is a forgotten anniversary that few will note in China: 30 years ago in 1979, China invaded Vietnam.
The Sino-Vietnamese War (known in Chinese as 中越战争) is the culmination of a long string of modern tragedies for Vietnam, starting with the French occupation in the 19th and early 20th centuries to a brutal Japanese invasion during WWII and a civil war and bitter guerrilla fighting with the United States in the 1960s and 70s. The war is but the most recent installment of a thousands-of-year-struggle between Vietnam and its massive neighbor the north. On February 17, 1979 China invaded on the pretense of punishing Vietnam for toppling the government of its ally Pol Pot, the brutal Cambodian dictator, and for abuses against ethnic Chinese in Vietnam. Many observers cite deeper geo-political goals, such as exposing the Soviet Union’s unwillingness to come to the military aid of Vietnam and to convince the United States that China was able and willing to curb Soviet expansion.
By mid-March the PLA, hampered by archaic equipment and command structures and no match for the battle-hardened Vietnamese army, in true Orwellian style declared victory, packed up its bags and went home, leaving behind as many as 20,000 of their comrades dead in northern Vietnam. Estimates for Vietnamese casualties vary, but the Chinese employed a scorched-earth policy on their way back north, thus ensuring that the war would, at least for some, last long after the last Chinese soldier left Vietnam. Low-level border conflicts continued well into the 1980s.
In Vietnam, the war is far from forgotten. In fact, a large section of the War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City is devoted to the Sino-Vietnamese War. But in today’s China, the story is different. Reliable information about the so-called Chinese “victory” in Vietnam is hard to come by on the mainland. The war is a sore point for the PRC government and books and articles on the topic are almost never published, even when written by the veterans themselves. The war isn’t included in school curriculum and many young Chinese don’t even know the war happened at all.
Perhaps this would all be par for the course if not for the fact that all this silence exists side by side with vocal outrage over Japanese textbooks that are silent on Japanese atrocities committed during WWII. While the Chinese government is more than willing to harp on Japan for its war crimes, an awkward and telling silence exists over the topic of China’s own misadventure in Vietnam. In fact, some go so far as to claim that China has never invaded another country.
An opportunity exists here for China. Raising awareness of the truth regarding the Sino-Vietnamese War, far from drawing criticism from the international community, instead would be an excellent and cheap way for China to gain praise for making steps towards greater transparency. Another benefit sure to appeal to those in power is the chance to gain the moral high-ground on other fronts, shaming Japan into coming to terms with its own atrocities.
Anniversaries can have a special power over an emotionally charged people, as the PRC surely knows. Rather than focusing on crackdowns and protests, China should take steps forward to clear the record regarding a 30-year old mistake. China itself stands to gain the most.
by Chris Hearne