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Vietnam tense as China war is marked

By Nga Pham
BBC News

Vietnam is marking the anniversary of its border war with China with an uneasy quiet, as official channels avoid mentioning the events of 30 years ago.

A Vietnamese guard stands next to a marker for the "Friendship Border Gate" on the Chinese-Vietnamese border
Neither Vietnam nor China seem to wish to repeat the bitter events of 1979

But simmering nationalistic emotions are being brought to the surface by painful memories.

Hoang Thi Lich, 72, remembers vividly the morning of 17 February 1979, when she and her family woke to a suffocating sense of panic in the mountains of Cao Bang.

As dawn broke, China launched attacks on a number of positions in Vietnam's northernmost provinces with a staggering display of so-called "human waves" and artillery power.

Mrs Lich's family was quickly evacuated from her small hamlet in Hoa An district, along with a dozen other ethnic Tay families.

She recalls: "We were told to run southwards... I could hear loud gunfire. I was so frightened I froze for a long while, I did not know what to do."

Mrs Lich's family escaped to safety.

Just 18 days later, in the same Hoa An district, retreating Chinese soldiers reportedly hacked to death 43 people - mostly women and children.

Naive hopes

The Chinese attacks caught the Vietnamese off-guard, despite rumours of a war initiated by China's then-leader Deng Xiaoping circulating for months within Vietnamese political circles.

Vivienne Guo
I remember learning that the Vietnamese were so 'bad and ungrateful' that we needed to teach them a lesson
Vivienne Guo

A former top official at Vietnam's embassy in Beijing, Duong Danh Dy, warned from early 1978 that the bilateral relationship between Hanoi and Beijing was worsening by the day.

In July 1978, after what Beijing considered mistreatment of ethnic Chinese living in Vietnam, China halted assistance to its neighbour, prompting Hanoi to sign a "co-operation and friendship" pact with Moscow soon after.

Around the same time Hanoi intensified its efforts to topple Beijing's ally, the Khmer Rouge's Maoist regime in Cambodia.

Chairman Deng vowed to "teach Vietnam a lesson".

Vietnam's Duong Danh Dy, referring to a televised news briefing by the Chinese leader in December 1978, recalled: "I would never forget his face when he described Vietnam as a 'hooligan'.

"At that stage, we all thought 'that's it, a war is no longer avoidable'," Mr Dy said.

"But deep down inside we still hoped, perhaps naively, that since Vietnam and China had been so close and brotherly, they [the Chinese] wouldn't turn on us so fast and so strongly."

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Philip Short meets Chinese refugees returning from Vietnam in August 1978

Isolation

Instead, Beijing mobilised hundreds of thousands of troops and volunteers in its largest military operation since the Korean War.

Vietnam, meanwhile, was in a difficult situation having to deal with its Cambodian conflict and reconstructing a near-collapsed economy.

We have been faithful to our promise not to bring up old events for the sake of the relationship between the two countries
Duong Danh Dy, ex-official at Vietnam's embassy in Beijing

Vietnam's former first deputy foreign minister, who was in office when the border war began, said his country's isolationism had left it vulnerable.

"We were too dependent on our ideological allies, and by that time the only ally we had was the Soviet Union," said Tran Quang Co.

"Being a small country living next to a big country, we needed more friends. We needed to expand our ties and diversify our relations."

China's "pedagogical war" lasted just over a fortnight, with both Vietnam and China claiming victory.

Though disputable, estimates suggest that up to 60,000 lives were lost on both sides.

As well as the loss of life, the trust and fraternity that the two communist parties had struggled to build during the previous half a century suffered a severe blow.

In his memoir Memories and Thoughts, Tran Quang Co cited Vietnam's late leader Vo Van Kiet as saying in 1991 - the year the two countries normalised their relationship - that China "was always a trap".

'Too compromising'

The mutual distrust has lingered through the years, occasionally flaring when bilateral disputes occur.

Vietnam saw mass protests in December 2007, when China reportedly announced plans to establish an administrative unit to govern the Spratly and Paracel islands - territories claimed by Vietnam.

A smaller demonstration took place when the Beijing Olympic torch reached Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh City.

A Vietnamese protester demonstrates against a Chinese move to exert control over two disputed archipelagos
China's actions in the South China Sea sparked protests in Vietnam
However, such protests are uncommon.

Hanoi is trying hard not to jeopardise the warming ties with its giant neighbour. Neither Vietnam nor China seem to wish to repeat the bitter experience of 1979.

With bilateral trade rapidly growing and a land border agreement expected to be finalised soon after 35 years of negotiations, some say relations between the two are the best they have ever been.

The Vietnamese government is therefore keeping a close eye on what the media write about Vietnam-China relations - especially sensitive issues such as border or territorial claims.

"China is getting stronger so Vietnam needs to learn more [cleverly] how to co-exist with it," said senior diplomat Le Cong Phung.

Last week, the newspaper Saigon Tiep Thi published an article by well-known journalist Huy Duc on the 1979 border war on its website. The story was removed within hours.

"We have been faithful to our promise not to bring up old events for the sake of the relationship between the two countries," said Duong Danh Dy, who is now one of Vietnam's leading China experts.

The official stance has been condemned by the public as too soft and too compromising.

Internet forums and personal blogs are flooded with anti-China comments as the anniversary of the border war approaches.

In the Du Lich newspaper, a recent essay slipped past the state censors, praising the "pure patriotism and proud spirit" of the anti-Chinese protesters in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City.

As this nationalistic flame burns, the question of whether it will spread like wildfire depends on both governments' policies towards each other.

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