Vietnam-China Border War 1979: When Vietnamese People Refused To Forget

Quynh-Vi Tran
Quynh-Vi Tran

Foreigners often assume – wrongfully – that the last war the Vietnamese people remember fighting was the one where the Americans were involved.

It is not.

Foreigners also often do not fully understand why a large number of Vietnamese people would protest when China acts aggressively in the Southeast Asian Sea or South (of) China Sea.

Is it because the Chinese colonized us Vietnamese for one thousand years and continuously fought us during our entire history?

It is not, not entirely.

It is true that from our earliest history until this century, China’s aggression towards us has never ceased to exist.

But, we were forced to resist primarily because our government in the past almost three decades, as it attempted to be closer to their ideological big brother, tried to blur our past conflicts with China.

We were forced to remember because we felt that there has been an attempt to erase this collective memory from us.

Ever since Vietnam signed a treaty with China to end the decade long Border War after their secret negotiations in Chengdu in 1990, our history books spent only a few paragraphs discussing the recent battles between us and China.

Until very recently, writing about China’s aggression and the bloody history between the two countries in the 20th century was strictly forbidden by the Propaganda Central Committee of the Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP).

Those journalists and bloggers – such as Osin Huy Duc, Pham Doan Trang, Mother Mushroom, The Wind Trader, and Trung Bao – who dared to lead the way almost a decade ago on writing about the restricted contents have paid a hefty price. For some of them, their professional life ended, and for some others: jail time.

The people’s attempts to commemorate these battles and those who died were faced with arrest, detention and physical assaults by our police force every year.

Remembering the dead during the anniversary of their passing – or Ngày Giỗ – is a staple ritual in the Vietnamese culture.

Remembering those who had given up their lives to protect our lands is seen as a responsibility which the people expect from their government.

When our government chose silence over commemorating those who died to protect our sovereignty, as Vietnamese, we refused to forget.

We refused to forget the 74 soldiers of the Republic of South Vietnam’s naval force whom we lost in the battle of January 19, 1974 – the day China invaded Paracels Island.

We refused to forget the 68 soldiers from the People’s Army of Vietnam who died resisting China’s attack at the Johnson South Reef on March 14, 1988, in the Spratly Islands.

And every February, we could not forget the most gruesome memory of the massacre in the Northern provinces during the Border War of 1979, which many witnesses could still recall today.

We saw the relationship between the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the VCP has trenched in the blood of innocent lives.

Thousands of Vietnamese people and soldiers died at the hands of the Chinese PLA during the Border War.

One research paper entitled China’s War Against Vietnam, 1979: A Military Analysis conducted in 1982 by King C. Chen and published by the School of Law of the University of Maryland in 1983, had estimated that each side lost about 30,000 soldiers from February 17, 1979, to March 5, 1979.

Vietnam estimated the number of lives it had lost during the Border War was around 60,000 people.

Has it not been for the internet that was roaming free in Vietnam since the early 2000s until now, the younger generations of Vietnamese would not be able to learn about our history.

It was also because of the internet, Vietnamese people learned about the Tiananmen massacre, and the plight of the Tibetans and the Uyghurs under China’s occupation.

We fear the day that Vietnam would be the next Tibet or East Turkestan if China’s aggression continues.

When our National Assembly tried to pass the Special Economic Zones in June 2018, our government reaffirmed this worst fear that Vietnam could be under the direct control of the most terrible dictatorship in the world.

Naturally, thousands of people turned to the streets as they did in 2007/2008, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2014, and so forth.

The June 2018 protest, however, was estimated to be the most massive demonstration in contemporary Vietnam’s history after April 1975, and it was not organized by any groups of dissidents.

It was probably an automatic response to China’s aggression, a force of resistance that might have been ingrained in most of our genetic makeups.

The majority of Vietnamese people do distinguish the CCP as the main culprit, not all people of Chinese descent.

In 2014, there were reports of riots burning down Chinese-owned factory, but the identities of those rioters were dubious to the public.

Some suspected that the “riots” was part of the police’s tactic to suppress the peaceful demonstration against China for bringing their oil rig – Haiyang 981 – into Vietnam’s waters at the time.

Regardless, Vietnamese people quickly denounced the riots, as well as any call for violence against Chinese people and their property.

This year, 2019, it was the first time that all of Vietnam’s major newspapers published the detailed historical events to commemorate the February 1979 Border War with China.

However, few trusted that our government has truly meant to give the dead their well-earned respect after 40 years.

Last night, a document stamped “Secret” was circulating Facebook in Vietnam, allegedly came from the VCP’s leaders in Ho Chi Minh City, asking the local authorities to not letting self-organized groups – such as the Le Hieu Dang Club – to organize their events commemorating February 17, 1979.

This morning, social media reported that the local police forces were arresting dissidents who went to Ly Thai To statue in Hanoi and Tran Hung Dao statue in Ho Chi Minh City to commemorate the event.

Among the arrested were blogger Anh Chi Tuyen (Nguyen Chi Tuyen), poet Phan Dang Lu, Facebookers Dang Bich Phuong, Le Hong Hanh, and Hong Ha.

The people often chose the statues of Ly and Tran as the commemorating locations because they were our national heroes who fought off the “enemies from the North” in our history.

In Ho Chi Minh City, the local authorities were quite “creative” when they used a forklift to take away the giant incense burner (lư hương) so that no one could offer the incense to the dead, effectively stopping any commemoration activity at once.

While the good faith of our government again was being called into question today, February 17, 1979, had already become a historical event that the contemporary Vietnamese memorialized because we, the people, refused to forget.

Opinion-SectionpicksVietnam-China Border War

Quynh-Vi Tran

Quynh-Vi was a litigation lawyer in California before becoming a democracy advocate and journalist in 2015. She is also a strong advocate for abolishing the death penalty.