Posted by Joel Martinsen on Tuesday, April 7, 2009 at 7:00 PM
The thirtieth anniversary of the start of the Sino-Vietnamese war was observed this past February 17.
The current issue of Phoenix Weekly includes an extensive cover feature of what it calls "The Forgotten War: 1979 – 2009." The magazine approaches the conflict from a number of perspectives. The lead article covers relations between China and Vietnam over the past two decades. A second article (translated below) examines the effect the war had on people living in the border region by following the individual stories of soldiers and civilians on both sides. A third piece briefly discusses the lessons the Chinese military learned from the experience. And interviews with six veterans reveal some of what the experience has meant for the lives of the people who served in the military between 1979 and 1992.
Although the feature is lavishly illustrated with war photographs by Wang Hong, there are no photos from the Sino-Vietnamese War proper, the period between China's incursion on February 17 and its withdrawal a month later on March 16.
But the border conflict continued throughout the 1980s, often quite fiercely, and in 1986 when Wang spent time with the troops in Laoshan, Yunnan Province, he was able to capture scenes in camps, on the front lines, and in military cemeteries.
The cover photo was taken in 1986. It is captioned:
The following article follows the experiences of a number of soldiers and civilians in the 1979 war, throughout the border skirmishes in the 1980s, and during the rebuilding in the decade that followed.
The Sino-Vietnamese War: A Scar on the Tropic of Cancerby Zhou Yu / PW
On March 11, 2009, at a leather shop in Kunming, 52-year-old shopkeeper Zhao Yonggang (赵永刚) worked a busy morning in a room piled high with shoes, polish, and leather clothing. Business at the shop took a large hit in the wake of the financial crisis hit, but recently more people had been coming in to have their shoes cared for.
Another man roughly the same age as Zhao entered the shop and began discussing that evening's gathering with him. The man told him that an old senior officer would be present. Zhao was torn: he wanted to see his old superior and comrades, but he did not want to leave behind all of those shoes.
Zhao is a retired soldier who won second-class honors serving in the Sino-Vietnamese War. February 17 was the thirtieth anniversary of the war, and all throughout that month Zhao and his fellow soldiers had been constantly meeting, sweeping graves, and conducting commemorative activities.
On March 6, in the city of Lao Cai in the northern Vietnamese province of the same name, a fifty-year-old motorcycle driver named Nguyen Van Qui (阮文贵) picked up a fare, a Chinese man whose destination was the old veterans cemetery outside of the city. 10,000 dong: Qui was delighted to take the work and, while the man visited the cemetery, he waited disinterestedly at the gate.
The cemetery is three kilometers outside of Lao Cai along the road leading to the development district, an area with few people. It was empty, and few of the gravestones showed traces of candles or incense. The memorial in the center of the cemetery read "For meritorious service to the homeland"; in front of it was a single floral wreath which bore a banner reading "The homeland will forever remember your service." Many of the soldiers buried here who died in the Sino-Vietnamese War did not leave behind their names.
International Women's Day was just a few days away, and flower stalls were set up everywhere on the streets of Lao Cai. As was the custom, people bought flowers for the women in their family. But there were no flowers to be seen anywhere in the cemetery.
Noticing his fare's interest in the war, Qui explained that he was a veteran. He took off his coat and rolled up his sleeve to show a shrapnel scar on his right arm.
Like Qui, many of the motorcycle drivers in Lao Cai are veterans of the Sino-Vietnamese War. They are not locals, but stayed in the city after the war ended.
On February 17, visitors to the 1509 Cemetery in Ha Giang Province were similarly scarce, and only one or two bouquets could be seen. All by himself, an old veteran lit incense and commemorated the more than one thousand soldiers buried there.
The Sino-Vietnamese War was a conflict that inflicted heavy casualties. According to statistics released by the Vietnamese government, 20,000 Chinese were killed and more than 60,000 were injured. In China, the "Work Report on the Self-Defensive Counterattack Against Vietnam" drawn up by the logistics bureau of the Kunming Military Region says that between February 17 and March 16, 1979, there were 6,954 deaths and 14,800 injuries to the PLA and support militia; 15,000 Vietnamese troops were killed between February 17 and February 27, and another 37,000 were killed between February 28 and March 16.
Beginning in the dead of night on February 17, 1979, the two sides, including Zhao the Chinese soldier and Qui the Vietnamese soldier, fought at close quarters along the bank of the Red River. They both lost many of their comrades, and each was witness to the destruction of towns and the scattering of civilians. The war broke out suddenly and ended just as suddenly, and although they did not understand precisely why, it changed their entire lives.
Awakened that morning from a dream
At midnight on February 2, 1979, twenty-two-year-old Zhao Yonggang and his unit received orders to sneak across the Red River from Hekou in rubber rafts and enter Hoang Lien Son Province (now Lao Cai and Yen Bai Provinces).
Zhao's mind was a blank, as if he were dreaming. When he had joined the army two years before, he never imagined that he would go off to war. For him, the army was just a springboard he could use to find work in a factory later on.
But suddenly in the second half of 1978, senior officers of the military region began conducting frequent inspections, and after one such inspection, an officer left them with these words: "I hope that you can do great things for the people." Zhao could sense that "great things" meant that they'd be going to war.
At the end of the year, the order for war against Vietnam was handed down. Soldiers were informed that China and Vietnam were no longer comrades or brothers. Vietnam was an ungrateful country that had become anti-Chinese, invaded Kampuchea, and turned its guns northward to harass the homeland's southern border.
As Zhao was crossing the river, twenty-year-old Nguyen Van Qui, an enlisted soldier in the Vietnamese army stationed in Lao Cai, was still fast asleep. Qui had entered the army in the same year as Zhao. He had not tested into college after high school graduation and, in line with state regulations, had enlisted for a three-year stint in the People's Army.
Qui's high school years had been at a time when friendship was promoted between China and Vietnam. He studied three years of Chinese, the only foreign language taught in Vietnamese high schools at the time. At school, he learned that China had given Vietnam large quantities of generous aid, and he never heard words critical of China.
After he graduated, he noticed that many schools were replacing Chinese with Russian, a change that made him uneasy. Qui was originally set to go to Kampuchea after training, but he ended up staying in Lao Cai.
By 2 am, Zhao and his unit had made a successful crossing and had come upon a Vietnamese army base. He heard a shouted command, and they picked up their guns and fired. Before long, Zhao heard gunfire start up in other areas.
Most of the Vietnamese troops ahead of Zhao were watching Soviet movies inside a tile factory behind the camp and were entirely unprepared for the outbreak of fighting. After easily taking the camp, Zhao discovered that the heavy artillery and anti-personnel machine guns had not even been used, and the traps in outside the base did not even have bamboo spikes installed.
Two hours later, the main assault was launched from Hekou, and troops surged across the Red River. A signal corps operator named Xie Ming (谢明) saw wave after wave of soldiers climbing into rubber rafts around him, shouting "Comrades, to protect the territory of the motherland, charge!" as they pressed on toward the other side. The Vietnamese troops on the opposite bank sent a hail of gunfire in the direction of the shouts.
About an hour later, Chinese artillery troops began to push back the Vietnamese army. Explosions flashed red against the night sky. The Chinese army finally captured the river bank.
By morning, after Xie Ming had crossed over a river stained red by the blood of Chinese soldiers, he discovered that his company had lost quite a number of soldiers. Their spots were quickly filled by unfamiliar faces.
Nguyen Van Qui was just about to get out of bed when he was startled by the earthshaking sound of gunfire from the main Chinese force. Qui and his unit had long been anxious that China might invade on any given day. From that day forward, Qui was aware of nothing besides Chinese bombs and the unceasing advance of the Chinese forces. Qui's fought a retreating battle.
In the early morning of February 17, artillery fire from the Chinese army's general offensive had also awakened Khuong Thi Mai (姜氏梅), a student at the Girls' Vocational School in Lao Cai. Explosions sounded on all sides, and a nearby church was blown to bits. The home of one of Mai's friends was hit, killing the entire family
Lao Cai was in chaos. All anyone knew was that the sound of the explosions was coming from the north. Mai's parents abandoned their wooden home and fled southward through the darkness with their seven children, taking with them only money and a few articles of clothing.
Amid a rush of other refugees, the family eventually reached the Cam Duong* train station, about 40 km away, which was brimming with refugees. Luckily, Mai's family was able to board the train and escape to the home of relatives, 200 km away in Yen Bai. Outside the window they could see crowds of the not-so-lucky heading south on foot.
About twenty kilometers outside of Lao Cai, Qui was surrounded by Chinese forces. Rank upon rank of his fellow soldiers had fallen, and the living left the dead where they fell. Qui got hit in the arm, but he managed to break out of the encirclement. In less than one month of fighting, Qui's unit had lost 49 of its 100 members. One of his friends had his entire unit wiped out.
Zhao Yonggang's elite team had suffered heavy losses during their four days in Vietnam. After being ambushed by Vietnamese troops, they had gotten stuck in a valley amid fierce fighting, and a machine gunner had died in Zhao's arms. A count taken by his company on the second day found that through death, injury, and other loss, 100 of their 160 members had been taken out. Zhao was awarded second-class honors for bravery.
Xie Ming's unit suffered even greater losses. "People were dying every minute," he recalled. It was the same even in the cities they occupied. Xie was hit in the abdomen. The third day after they arrived in Cam Duong, the pond they used for drinking water was suddenly overflowing with corpses, at which point they realized that the bodies of the soldiers killed in the fierce fighting at the rail station a few days before had spent two or three days at the bottom of the pond before rising to the surface.
A war "between brothers"
It was only after the fighting started that Qui learned from one of his fellow soldiers about the cause of the war: "China and Vietnam had once traveled the same road, but then Vietnam had turned its back on China and drawn close to Russia, so China had to teach them a lesson."
Qui says, as if convincing himself after all these years, that the war was completely different from the conflicts with America and France: "It was two brothers fighting with each other!"
When the war began, Zhao Yonggang felt that he ought to treat the Vietnamese as if they were ordinary people back in his own country.
The first time Zhao encountered fleeing Vietnamese civilians was on the morning of February 17. His heart ached at the sight of the terrified old women and children in front of him. He told them not to be afraid, and to stay inside and not go anywhere outside. He also shared cigarettes with the old women.
Zhao would sometimes ask villagers: "Is China good? Is Chairman Mao good? Is the PLA good?" The answer was always "Yes." When the PLA arrived, some villagers took out old busts of Chairman Mao and hung them up inside their homes.
Once, after surrounding a village and taking a large number of soldiers prisoner, Zhao's camp decided, after obtaining approval from their superiors, to promote Sino-Vietnamese friendship among the villagers. While Zhao's company stood along the outside of a paddy field holding submachine guns, other companies plunged in and for two hours planted seedlings for the villagers.
The villagers gathered around curiously. Some of them were smiling, but Zhao remembers that their smiles were only skin-deep. Everyone knew that it was just a performance.
Xie Ming's unit also attempted to build a "friendship" with the Vietnamese people. At the beginning of the war, whenever they came across elderly, disabled, or infirm refugees, they had orders to carry them back for medical treatment. But the people were not at all grateful, and some soldiers were stabbed to death as they carried the "refugees" on their backs.
Xie's fellow soldiers found this hard to explain. After they captured one of these "refugees," they questioned her: why did she want to kill Chinese soldiers? The young Vietnamese woman dressed up as an old woman said, "You are invaders."
That bloody lesson forced Xie and his fellow soldiers to abandon the idea of friendship.
In the Vietnamese countryside, Xie came across many things he had never seen before: Czech motorcycles, Soviet combines, French fork-lifts, and Japanese radios.
Once, when he went in to search a home, an electronic device that resembled a time bomb was sitting on a table. All the soldiers hit the ground, but the bomb did not go off. One of them plucked up his courage to press the button, at which point the "time bomb" started playing music. Xie learned that this was a Sanyo radio from Japan. And the French fork-lift was blown up by rocket fire when it was mistaken for a tank.
On March 28, 1979, Xie Ming's unit received the order to pull out of Cam Duong. This was the first time that Xie heard about Beijing's March 5 order to withdraw.
As they were leaving, Xie's unit completed its mission to blow up the region's major structures. The government and department store in Cam Duong, the government and electric plant in Lao Cai, a phosphorus mine, and a large number of bridges were all demolished. Xie remembers that the pretty French villas in Lao Cai were blown up as well, and cottages that concealed weapons or militia members were fire-bombed.
Zhao Yonggang's unit followed a similar course of bombing as they withdrew. Many of the buildings and structures they blew up had been constructed with Chinese aid. After the Chinese army withdrew, the majority of the towns in northern Vietnam, including Lao Cai, Sapa, Dong Dang, Lang Son, and Cao Bang, were reduced to rubble. A Vietnamese reporter said that in Cao Bang, "the Chinese did not leave a single house standing."
When he heard the unexpected news of the Chinese withdrawal, Nguyen Van Qui felt that it was even more of a mystery than the sudden outbreak of war. Thirty years later, he still does not understand why the Chinese just up and left.
His unit, which had been driven southward, turned around and began to attack the withdrawing Chinese army. Qui and his unit reached Lao Cai and then continued on to the edge of the Red River.
All feelings of brotherhood were suddenly erased when Qui saw the ruined streets of Lao Cai: any Chinese they came across, the soldiers were going to kill straight away. So when Qui reached the river and could clearly see Chinese on the other side, he could only grind his teeth in rage.
After fleeing to Yen Bai Province, Khuong Thi Mai and her family quickly ran through all of their savings. They did not return home because the Vietnamese government did not allow any residents to return to the ruined streets of Lao Cai. Mai and her family, like other families that fled from Lao Cai, supported themselves by running small businesses or finding jobs as laborers. Ten years after the war ended, their hometown was still a city empty of everything but an army garrison.
A decade of cross-border war
Qui and Zhao retired during the year after the war ended in 1979. Two years later, the two sides fought over Faka Mountain in Guangxi, and also at Laoshan, Koulinshan, East Balihe Mountain, and Duyinshan in Malipo County, Yunnan. The Sino-Vietnamese border just south of the Tropic of Cancer played host to fiery, multi-day battles.
"A Survey of the Self-Defense Counterattack Against Vietnam at Laoshan, East Balihe Mountain, and Koulinshan" put out by the Malipo Martyrs Cemetery reads, "Since the counterattack against Vietnam in 1979, the recalcitrant Vietnamese authorities ignored our repeated warnings and continued to pursue their hegemonistic policies eastward against Kampuchea and northward into our border territory, invading and occupying ten hills in Laoshan and Koulinshan in Yunnan."
In May 1981 and again in April 1984, fierce fighting broke out between the two side. China's military regions took turns engaging the Vietnamese. The Survey says that in one 100-day battle, Chinese forces captured more than fifty elevated locations.
The flames of war engulfed this remote southwest border county for a full decade. Laoshan, near the port of Tianbao thirty kilometers from Malipo, was the site of a battle known throughout the country.
October 14, 1986: After leading the attack on the Vietnamese position, Ma Quanbin, captain of the strike force, reports to the command*
The 959 PLA soldiers and support militia who died in the battle are buried at Malipo Martyrs Cemetery, and the remains of others were returned to their hometowns after cremation. The dead come from 19 provinces. The youngest was only 16, and some of the soldiers had only been enlisted for three months when they died in battle.
A remains transfer station used to be located at a bridge on the Panlong river not far from the port of Tianbao. The villagers remember that an entire truck full of dead soldiers dumped its load there before they were transferred elsewhere. The old women had never seen so many dead young people, and their effects piled on the ground drove them to tears.
Similar tragedies befell the Vietnamese army. According to the records of the Yunnan Border Defense Unit, in the continuous day and night fighting in April and May, 1984, the Chinese army killed several thousand enlisted men and officers, up to and including vice-commanders.
A Vietnamese army driver remembers driving trucks full of troops off to the front lines in the morning, and returning with trucks full of dead and wounded in the evening. Burning incense was stuck in a banana leaf placed between the wounded and the dead. The driver thought that some of the wounded would survive, but when he reached his destination, he often found that he was the only living occupant of the vehicle.
The part of Ha Giang Province close to China is dotted with cemeteries. The Vi Xuyen County martyrs cemetery alone holds 1,600 soldiers who died in the Sino-Vietnamese War.
The local effects of the war were enormous.
In 2004, a former official of the Wenshan Zhuang and Miao Autonomous Prefecture told the mainland media that the direct economic loss to Wenshan over the entire period had amounted to 1.98 billion yuan, and indirect losses were impossible to calculate. In the forty-two years between 1949 and 1991, state fixed asset investment in the prefecture was only 840 million yuan.
The Wenshan government once issued a document that read, "It was when building resumed after the war in 1992 that efforts were put toward economic development. For a long time prior to that, when the country was pursuing reform and opening up, Wenshan's work projects were 'all for the front lines.' It made an enormous sacrifice and paid an enormous price."
Supporting the front lines was Wenshan's most important mission. The prefecture established a Front Lines Office. Xie Ming remembers that in those days, "they gave us the freshest vegetables, and as many cigarettes as we wanted."
Wenshan's official records show that between 1984 and 1993, the prefecture provided 110.9963 million kilos of grain to the front lines, 6.78425 million kilos of oil, 196.87 million kilos of firewood, coal, and charcoal, 21.05365 million kilos of meat, 14.39565 million kilos of eggs and related food products, 128.4495 million kilos of preserved vegetables (fresh and dried), and 8.3999 million cartons of cigarettes. These numbers do not include the front-line units' daily use items, horse feed, and unplanned provisions and gifts.
During this time, all the counties in the prefecture — Wenshan, Mauan, Funing, Malipo, Yanshan, Guangnan, and Xichou — organized 108 infantry companies totaling 10,393 soldiers, and 55 cavalry companies totaling 4,838 soldiers and 3,764 horses.
The war also brought a few benefits to the area. Wenshan is an important producer of the Chinese herb notoginseng. During the war, the arrival of so many troops sent sales of notoginseng skyrocketing. Local residents often had only to set up by the side of the road and they could sell out immediately. The price of dried notoginseng could rise by tens of yuan per kilogram overnight.
Another benefit to the war was that it brought public roads all the way to the mountaintops.
Liang Jiuyong (梁久永) lived about one kilometer away from Tianbao Port, where his ethnic Zhuang family worked at a state-run farm. Over the course of the decade, Liang's family was forced to leave their home three times.
When war broke out in 1979, Liang's mother took him on her back in the traditional Zhuang manner and the entire family took shelter in shallow caves. Outside, the sounds of gunfire lasted uninterrupted all night long.
In 1981, the Liang family was again ordered to evacuate. Villagers that did not leave in time died in artillery fire. Liang's father was a member of the support militia, so his mother evacuated their five children by herself. Three years later, when Liang had just started the second grade, his family was evacuated a third time and he was forced to leave school.
In 1986, Liang's family was requested to transfer to a farm in another county because his aunt (his father's younger sister) was a Vietnamese living on the opposite mountain. But Liang's family refused to leave the mountain where their ancestors had lived for hundreds of years.
From then on, his family did not draw salaries or grain rations. That year, Liang dropped out of school to help his family raise pigs. He lived together with soldiers and took their leftovers to feed his pigs.
His aunt's family in Vietnam also came under suspicion because of their Chinese relatives. When the fighting was fiercest, the family hid in mountain caves along with other villagers and subsisted on cassava and wild vegetables. One young woman ventured outside to bring back rice and was killed by a bomb. Three elderly members of the group in the cave with Liang's aunt died as a result of terror and hunger.
The long war took its toll on Xie Ming, who was stationed in the front-line command at Laoshan. Although he was an officer, he too had no idea when the fighting would be over.
Discipline became a problem in the unit as the battles wore on, and the locals gradually began to complain that soldiers were harassing civilians.
In 1990, Vo Nguyen Giap, vice-chairman of the Council of Ministers and deputy Prime Minister of Vietnam, accepted an invitation to Beijing. A Vietnamese delegation took part in the Eleventh Asian Games, and signs of Sino-Vietnamese friendship began to appear. At political study sessions for officers above the rank of battalion commander, there were requests to sum up and look back on the war, and the officers on the front lines could sense that the war might end soon.
A broken generation
When the war was finally over in 1992, combat troops left Laoshan.
The year before, the situation had already thawed a little. Liang Jiuyong and his aunt's family were finally able to meet on the Chinese side after a decade's separation. Liang's mother gave his them a satchel of rice.
When his aunt's family returned from southern Vietnam, their village had been completely flattened, and their fields were pitted with craters and dotted with land mines. Weeds covered everything, and trees that had sprung up were already thick enough to wrap your arms around.
Survival became the most pressing concern for people on both sides of the border. After 1993, the Chinese government asked the people living in the war areas to take care of their own production and living expenses, so Liang Jiuyong's mother started taking essential balm, cold medicine, needles and thread, clothing, and Zhuang embroidery across the mountain to sell in Vietnam.
A lame Vietnamese man surnamed Dien warmly welcomed her. He said with a smile that he had been a spy for Vietnam and during the war had taken ten subordinates and 100 kilos of TNT to blow up bridges in China. But along the road he stepped on a land mine and lost a leg.
The Dien family's home had been destroyed in the war, so they built a simple log structure in the mountains. Mosquito nets and blankets were all that the building contained. Outside, he had a few longan trees that supported him and his four children.
Because of the sheer number of land mines, no one dared till the ground. Liang's aunt and her family survived by collecting shell casings and grenades, and by stripping the metal off of abandoned military fortifications to sell. Even so, Vietnamese villagers were killed by land mines fairly frequently.
People had also been killed by landmines in the Tianbao farmland on the Chinese side, but after mine sweeping took place, the farm's rubber trees returned to normal production. Yet poverty remained, and if people wanted money all they could do was to dig up and sell "defense steel."
Liang did not finish junior high. He couldn't get together the concentration to finish his schooling after being interrupted so many times by the war, which was branded into his mind. He felt that he was abnormal. With no toys to play with and no school to attend, he had spent his childhood firing guns, or cracking open cases of grenades to toss them into the river. He remembers that in 1985, some of the new soldiers had been enlisted for such a short time that the local farm kids had to teach them how to use their weapons.
Liang still dresses in full military get-up, from underwear to fatigues and boots. He is fascinated with finding relics from the war that only he knows how to locate.
Online, Liang applies his specialist's knowledge to refute young people who know nothing about the Sino-Vietnamese War yet have boundless interest for it. He struggled with the prospect of enlistment before his aversion to war and death led him to decide against becoming a soldier.
After the war ended, Liang worked various jobs as a laborer. He traveled to China's major cities and to all of the border ports in Yunnan. In 1994, at Ruili, on the Sino-Burmese border, he was astounded at the magnificence of what he saw.
"They're both national-level ports, but the people of Ruili had begun to build villas, while we in Tianbao still haven't solved our subsistence issues." This upsets Liang. He feels that the war held Tianbao back for far too long. He later visited Wanding, another town on the border with Burma, and discovered that it was even more impressive than Ruili. In 1997, he left his desolate hometown and went to Guangdong to find work.
After the war, the borderlands descended into chaos for a time. Before the mid-1990s, the proliferation of guns and grenades threatened public security. Outside businessmen coming into the area had to be careful, and Liang himself had taken advantage of the situation to gain a lock on loading and unloading of cargo.
Today, in Wenshan and Honghe, you can still see notices advertising "guns and ammo" or "guns and sedatives" next to graffiti ads for fake documents that cover the walls.
In February 2009, Liang Jiuyong's wife dug up a case of tracer bullets on a mountain and handed them over to the local garrison. Liang was well-versed in the theory and practice of the bullets, which the soldiers at the garrison had never seen before.
Liang says that none of the kids he grew up with had done all that well. Compared to the brand-new buildings going up all over, the home Liang built many years ago looks like a fairly shabby factory building.
An explosive temper combined with a lack of education became the shared characteristic of that generation. One of Liang's childhood friends was executed after an outburst in which he killed someone, and Liang himself went after someone with an iron club merely because the person spit in the direction of his older sister.
"They lose their temper faster than they turn the pages of a book," yet the peculiar disposition of Liang's generation is not understood by many young people today. Liang says that his sudden changes of temper remind him of when he was young, playing with the soldiers who would become martyrs in the blink of an eye.
Liang himself came close to being blown up: fortunately the rocket landed in a depression and the edges blocked the blast.
In 1992, Khuong Thi Mai's family returned to Lao Cai. The previous year, the Vietnamese government had given formal permission for reconstruction. Although Mai's wood-frame home had become grassed-over rubble, her family was fortunate enough recognize the plot and rebuild on the original site.
Not everyone was able to reclaim their own land, however. To encourage encourage outsiders to help rebuild Lao Cai, the government gave land away for free. One of Mai's old neighbors returned to find that his land occupied by another family.
Young people from southern Vietnam were given an incentive to come to Lao Cai: they could become civil servants without taking an examination. So urban Lao Cai was soon host to rebuilders from across the country, and today it is hard to find anyone who is truly native to the city.
Nguyen Van Qui joined the reconstruction forces. He married a woman from Viet Tri, near Hanoi, who had come to Lao Cai looking for work. Many of his surviving army buddies also married women from other parts of the country who had come to work in Lao Cai.
Today, Mai runs a grocery store next to a farm equipment market in Lao Cai. War forced an end to her schooling, but Mai feels that her brother, who runs a shop next to hers, had it even worse: he did not even finish elementary school.
On March 7, Mai's brother took up a stick to beat his kid, who ran into Mai's store crying. As hard as she tried, Mai could not stop her brother from entering her store. Two plates crashed to the floor, the noise of their shattering mixing in with the kid's cries.
Deep within her store, Mai's brother disciplined his ten-year-old son with the stick as he said, "I've had such hard luck since I never finished school, and you dare to cut class to play games?"
Reconstruction as a new cross-border contest
In 1986, Vietnam followed China in declaring a "reform and opening up."
In 1991, Do Muoi, general secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and Vo Van Kiet, Chairman of the Council of Ministers, led a high-level delegation to China, normalizing relations between the two countries. That year also brought a favorable turn to US-Vietnam relations, and Washington drew up a blueprint for the initial steps of normalizing relations with Hanoi.
In the five years from 1991 to 1995, the gross domestic product of Vietnam grew at an annual rate of 8.2%, creating more than one million new jobs each year. Inflation declined from 67.1% in 1991 to 12.7% in 1995. Some analysts said that Vietnam's economy was in a "high-speed take-off period."
In 1992, the Vietnamese side of the border began to rebuild. In February of the following year, efforts on both sides led the State Council to restore Tianbao's status as a national-level open port.
At the same time, Vietnam was giving a massive boost to the post-war border region. The assistance level was so great that officials in Wenshan began to get nervous. In an official document, the Wenshan government noted the Vietnamese government's specific policies:
Support involved port construction, aid for the poor, tax exemptions, and loans and education. Residents "purged" from the region during war-time who returned were given special assistance; the government provided free seeds, fertilizer, and draught animals for returning farmers, and gave them the equivalent of RMB 1,000–1,500 per family in housing assistance. In addition, border residents were given five years of total tax exemption, and the government provided them with a half-kilo of kerosene and a half-kilo of salt each month, free of charge. The families of those injured or killed were given government-subsidized homes.
An open situation report sent from Wenshan to the provincial government and the central authorities said, "The more favorable policies in Vietnam have negatively effected the people in our borderlands to varying degrees. Some of the injured complain, 'In the war, the state had us serve as soldiers, act as sentries, and carry ammunition to the front lines. We've been killed and injured, and now state compensation is not even as good as in Vietnam. In the next war, is anyone going to listen to the government's command to go to the front lines to die?'"
Some border inhabitants were spurred by the Vietnamese government's assistance policies to move. The situation report mentioned above said that over the years, 398 border households had moved, and 198 of these (involving 752 people) had moved to Vietnam, Laos, and Burma, "leading not only to a poor political influence, but threatening the integrity of the border as well."
Liang Jiuyong felt unsettled by the constant changes to his aunt's family's living conditions. In the early 90s, the family started up a car wash. At the time, one of Liang's relatives who was an attending physician had to sell soy sauce after work to supplement his income. But by the end of the decade, Liang's Vietnamese relatives had all opened car washes. Liang was envious of the subsidies the Vietnamese government gave to its citizens to help them buy cars.
Today, post-war reconstruction has become a new contest in which each side keeps a wary eye on the activities of the other.
In 2000, some border counties in Wenshan began a program to replace thatched cottages, and each household was given a 5,000-yuan subsidy. The local justice agencies linked up with village committees to assist in building well-off model villages. In 2006, health care was made completely free for villages along the border. But these policies were only available to committees in villages that shared a border with Vietnam.
In Vietnam the situation was similar. According to an official in a mountainous border region in China who did not want his name revealed, in Vietnamese border regions, houses were all beautifully painted on the side that faces China. But when Chinese officials visited, they discovered that the insides were run-down.
The poverty of mountainous regions is actually a problem for both countries. An official Vietnamese report in 2009 said that Son Vi, a region bordering both Guangxi and Yunnan, had a total of 908 households and 5,112 people, of whom those surviving on a below-subsistence level made up 47.64%. A hamlet in the Sung La township in Ha Giang province had just 47 households, 90% of which were impoverished.
Some of the Vietnamese border defense troops sold off their own pigs and sheep to build buildings called "great harmony halls." The villagers said through their tears that they had never seen such a beautiful building in their entire lives.
A Chinese frontier officer who asked to remain nameless said that more and more Vietnamese have been crossing the border illegally to seek work in China. In 2008 they caught an illegal crosser who had not eaten a staple such as rice or corn for an entire month. He said that by working in China he could make 10 yuan a day on top of being able to eat his fill.
Poverty has forced minority women living in the Vietnamese border region to be sold into China. The same Vietnamese government report said that some people sell for a few hundred RMB, while others can fetch as much as 3,200. They are generally sold into prostitution in China, some of them only 5 to 7 years old. These Vietnamese children grow up in China unable to speak Vietnamese and completely ignorant of where they came from.
On the Chinese side, poverty has driven people to venture into land mine areas cordoned off by the government, because the lack of inhabitants means they can more easily find firewood. So from time to time people in the mountains are killed or injured by land mines.
In 2006, Yunnan vice-governor Li Hanbo said in a report on the province's post-war rebuilding work that even after a decade of reconstruction that has changed the face of the war region, many problems remain unsolved. Fifteen of the twenty-two counties and cities in the war region are focal points for state aid, and nearly 1.7 million people live in poverty.
Cemeteries on both sides of the border
When Zhao Yonggang was discharged in 1980, he was placed in a piston factory in Kunming. Over the next thirty years, he visited the martyrs cemetery in Pingbian County practically every year to sweep the graves of forty-six of his fallen comrades.
He would take five yuan out of his monthly salary of fifty yuan to pay for the trip. When he had around one month's pay saved up, he would take off work, board the train to Mengzi, and then transfer to a bus to Pingbian. On the morning of the third day, Zhao could see his army buddies in the cemetery.
He'd light a cigarette and pour out a glass of alcohol, or set an apple down beside each grave, and weep as he talked to them. Sweeping the graves immersed Zhao the honor involved in sacrificing one's life for the homeland. But as the years marched onward, the sense of honor gradually faded as Zhao's conversations with his buddies grew longer.
"Bro, it makes me sad, coming to sweep your grave. We fought, we protected the land, but for what?" Zhao would ask the gravestones. As he swept the graves year after year, he'd go on about how poorly retired solders were compensated, social injustice, and his own dissatisfaction with corruption. But in the cemetery he never brought up how the war was being forgotten. He was afraid that it would make his comrades unhappy.
In 1995, Zhao left the piston plant, which was having trouble making payroll on time, and began working sales for companies of all stripes in Kunming. Later, he found a fairly promising job: shoe and leather care.
February 17, the thirtieth anniversary of the Sino-Vietnamese War, was an especially important day for Zhao Yonggang and Xie Ming. The war was the defining moment in the lives of the soldiers who fought in it, and for several days before, the two men's units held their own gatherings in remembrance.
But for Nguyen Van Qui, the day was not particularly noteworthy. July 27 is Veterans Day in Vietnam, and it is on that day that the veterans of the wars against France, Japan, the US, and China celebrate. Among all of those conflicts, the war against China does not seem to be all that important.
Qui has never been to the military cemetery three kilometers outside Lao Cai, because the bodies of most of his fellow soldiers were never found. Occasionally he will remember his fallen comrades, and this reminds him of his old hatred for the Chinese. And when encounters the Chinese tourists that are now found everywhere, or Vietnamese businessmen rushing to trade with China, he seems to have no place to put his understated hatred.
Even when he talks about the destruction of Lao Cai, Qui does not feel that it is anything special. "Today, Lao Cai is ten times larger, and much prettier and more advanced, than it was back then. Relations between the two countries have long since returned to normal, so what's the point of bringing up those old events?"
Lao Cai and Hekou, the city he once raged at so fiercely across the river, have grown to become practically a single city. The Vietnamese Trade Street in Hekou serves travelers from China as well as Vietnamese themselves: Vietnamese travelers can purchase objects that are unavailable back home, like fine knives and adult products.
But not every Vietnamese soldier has been able to set aside the war so easily. The army driver mentioned above went to pay his respects to his comrades at the cemetery on February 17. He lit a stick of incense for each of them. Thirty years ago, this was the scene of some of the fiercest fighting of the war, but now the fallen soldiers rest peacefully. The driver said that the hilltop was too cold, and he hoped that others would come to light incense and bring some warmth to the place.
Although Qui is unwilling to go to the cemetery in Lao Cai, Zhao Yonggang has been there. Crossing to the other side of the the Red River is the wish of many Chinese veterans.
In 2005, Zhao Yonggang and other soldiers went to sweep graves at Pingbian. After pouring out their hearts to their deceased comrades, the surviving soldiers decided to pay a visit to Lao Cai. Zhao had not brought his ID card, but two Vietnamese soldiers were able to smuggle him across the river, for the price of 60 yuan from each of the Chinese veterans.
Zhao wanted to visit the Lao Cai military cemetery to see the Vietnamese soldiers that they had killed, for he thought it would make him feel a little better. But at the cemetery gate, Zhao could not bring himself to go in. He was afraid that his age would arouse the suspicions of the caretakers. What he did not realize was that the cemetery did not have a caretaker at all.
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