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How Vietnam Uses Propaganda To Erase The 1979 Sino-Vietnam Border War

Photo: Alan Dawson, Bettmann, CORBIS (left)/ Nguyen Huy Kham, Reuters (right). Graphics by The Vietnamese Magazine.

Efforts to erase the public memory of a disturbing war

On February 17, 1979, [1] Chinese troops poured south across Vietnam's northern border and launched a bloody invasion of its ideological neighbor. The brief and violent war resulted in tens of thousands of deaths recorded on both sides. Intermittent and violent clashes continued to take place along the border provinces for an entire decade.

Before 1979, the two Communist countries’ relationship was described as “close as lips and teeth.” At that time, Beijing had provided Hanoi with significant financial aid and arms to fight the U.S.-backed South Vietnam.

But Vietnamese attitudes towards China had become considerably more hostile after Beijing waged a war against its Communist neighbor. Following the bloody conflict, Vietnam fervently painted a grim description of China in its propaganda songs, history textbooks, and even in the country’s Constitution.

In Vietnam’s 1980 Constitution, Hanoi authorities described China as the “chauvinist expansionist.” This description was removed, however, in 1988 when Vietnam proceeded to normalize its diplomatic relations with its northern neighbor in the 1990 Chengdu Summit.

Since then, Vietnam has systematically restricted official commemorations and silenced public discussion of the 1979 war. A more detailed and comprehensive examination of this event was introduced by Martin Grossheim during his presentation [2] The Politics of Memory: The Commemoration of Sino-Vietnamese Conflicts in Vietnam at the ISEAS - Yusof Ishak Institute. Grossheim is an associate professor of Vietnamese history at Seoul National University.

The Vietnamese government’s deliberate effort to shape public attitudes towards China, according to Grossheim, fundamentally came from Hanoi’s plan “to re-establish diplomatic relations” with its northern neighbor. This shift resulted in a lack of coverage of the conflict in Vietnam’s state media, censorship of journalists, as well as inadequate coverage of the disturbing event in Vietnam’s history textbooks and other teaching materials.

Grossheim also noted that there is a longstanding suspicion that Beijing would only normalize its diplomatic ties with Hanoi on the condition that Vietnam had to play down the domestic commemoration of the event; however, there is no concrete evidence available to support this assumption, he added.

The turning point

The relationship between the two countries reached a significant turning point in 2014 when China unilaterally placed [3] the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig, along with three other three Chinese oil and gas service ships heading southward, in Vietnam’s claimed maritime territory. One unnamed Vietnamese diplomat at the time told Reuters [4] that this event “has been one of [Hanoi’s] worst fears” since the deployment of the rig over the last two years.

This precarious situation also put an end to the decades-long absence of state media coverage of the 1979 war. Anti-China protests soon erupted across the country as people sought to break the government’s longstanding silence about the event and demanded a more comprehensive remembrance of other previous Sino-Vietnamese clashes.

Public pressure prompted the Hanoi authorities to allow more public discussions and to relax thir media restrictions on the coverage of Vietnam’s past conflicts with China. According to Grossheim’s evaluation, the move also “aimed to bolster Hanoi’s claims in the South China Sea dispute.”

It was followed by state media’s increasing coverage of the 1974 Paracels Sea Battle, a conflict between the South Vietnamese and Chinese navies, which resulted in the deaths of 74 South Vietnamese soldiers, and the 1988 Johnson South Reef Skirmish, known as Gac Ma in Vietnamese, in which Chinese troops killed 64 Vietnamese soldiers.

Since 2019, the 40th anniversary of the bloody 1979 battle, the government has permitted a more visible commemoration of the event and coverage has been seen in Vietnam’s mainstream media.

VnExpress, a local media channel that branded itself “the most viewed Vietnamese online newspaper,” in 2019, ran its own multi-series with comprehensive details of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese skirmish. In the same year, as Grossheim recalled during his last visit to the Vietnamese Museum of Military History, a more notable renovation of the 1979 war was on display while its martyrs were honored at the museum.

Yet, the Vietnamese government’s propaganda apparatus still tries to keep commemoration activities of this gruesome event subdued. The state consistently keeps avoiding mentioning China as an invader and aggressor, while it only describes the 1979 battle against Chinese invasion as “the struggle to defend the northern border of the country.”

When the people refuse to forget

In his presentation, Grossheim explained how the Vietnamese veterans who fought the decade-long war against China had played a major role in keeping the commemoration alive.

For years, these “agents of remembrance” [5] have ceaselessly raised their voices calling for a more proper commemoration of the conflict while expressing dissatisfaction over the state’s lack of funding to construct memorial sites and the process of uncovering the remains of their fallen comrades. It was in stark contrast to the substantial amount of state-sponsored finance and public attention allocated to the deceased soldiers who fought against “French colonialism” and “American imperialism.”

Another factor that helps prevent the memory of the 1979 war from falling into oblivion, Grossheim said, comes from tireless contributions from local dissidents.

Every year, Vietnamese activists have persistently organized groups to commemorate the fallen soldiers who fought against the Chinese invaders in different ways, from gathering and paying tribute at local memorial sites, to addressing and writing in-depth about this event on online platforms.

In 2016, the then Vietnamese President Truong Tan Sang became the first high-ranking official to commemorate the event; he also promised to support the excavation of the remains of lost soldiers and the expansion of the Vi Xuyen - Ha Tuyen memorial site, a former major battlefront located in Vietnam’s northern Ha Giang Province.

However, by gradually allowing and recognizing the commemoration of the 1979 war, the Vietnamese Communist Party also faces a dilemma between the attempt to legitimize its indisputable role as a nationalist liberator and the wish to remain in orbit with its ideological comrade.

The future of the commemoration of this sensitive event will essentially depend on two critical factors: the development of Vietnam-China diplomatic relations and the coverage of the war in Vietnam’s history books and its teaching curriculum.

But more than ever, it is clear that war veterans, local activists, and the Vietnamese people, in general, are increasingly demanding more recognition of the sacrifice of the fallen soldiers and memories of a forgotten war that was deliberately concealed for too long.


References:

[1] Nguyen, J. (2022, February 17). February 17, 1979: The Start of the Sino-Vietnamese Border War. The Vietnamese Magazine. https://www.thevietnamese.org/2022/02/february-17-1979-the-start-of-the-sino-vietnamese-border-war/

[2] ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. (2022, February 17). Webinar on “The Politics of Memory: The Commemoration of Sino-Vietnamese Conflicts in Vietnam.” ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute. https://www.iseas.edu.sg/media/event-highlights/webinar-on-the-politics-of-memory-the-commemoration-of-sino-vietnamese-conflicts-in-vietnam/

[3] Michael Green, Kathleen Hicks, Zack Cooper, John Schaus, And Jake Douglas. (2017, June 12). Countering Coercion in Maritime Asia: The Theory and Practice of Gray Zone Deterrence. The Center for Strategic and International Studies. https://amti.csis.org/counter-co-oil-rig-standoff/

[4] Greg Torode, Charlie Zhu. (2014, May 9). China’s oil rig move leaves Vietnam, others looking vulnerable. Reuters. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-china-seas-tensions-idUSBREA4710120140508[5] Grossheim, M. (2021, September 7). How the Vietnamese Began to Remember a Forgotten War. Wilson Center. https://www.wilsoncenter.org/blog-post/how-vietnamese-began-remember-forgotten-war

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