Monday, February 16, 2009

War and Wall, Thirty Years Ago

Thirty years ago, hundreds of thousands soldiers of the People's Liberation Army crossed the border from China to invade Vietnam and opened a large-scale military conflict between two former "blood-and-flesh" brothers. The declared motive was to respond forcefully to the frequent military incursions and harassment along the border by the Vietnamese. Another goal was to engage the Vietnamese Army in release of the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia who was under attack of an invading Vietnamese force. It has also been speculated that Deng Xiaoping intended to use this war to demonstrate to Uncle Sam the independence of China from the communist family headed by Soviet Union.

The major combats of that war lasted about a month and left heavy casualties on both sides. Failing to achieve the goal of a quick and decisive win and forcing the Vietnamese to withdraw from Cambodia, the Chinese army declared victory and withdrew. Border skirmishes continued throughout the 1980s, however.

As patriotic propaganda flourished in the official press along with the war efforts, the "Democracy Wall" movement was also near its end in that winter in Beijing. Wei Jingsheng was loudly warning that Deng Xiaoping was becoming a new dictator. His voice was a lonely amid a crowd of dissidents who saw Deng Xiaoping as the hope of a democratic China.

Wei Jingsheng also bragged to some foreign reporters the names of a few commanders leading the military campaign, information that appeared to be available within the insiders' grapevine. He was promptly arrested for the dual crime of "counter-revolutionary" and "disclosing military secrets" to foreigners. To his credit, he refused to betray his sources during his trial and was sentenced to fifteen years of prison.

The fever of the war and "Democracy Wall" died down in the decades followed. By 1989, ten years later, few people were aware of Wei Jingsheng. Except for Professor Fang Lizhi, who wrote an open letter to Deng Xiaoping appealing for Wei Jingsheng's release. The letter helped lifting the curtain of the great democracy movement of 1989.

Apart from the continued border skirmishes, the People's Liberation Army saw no action for a decade until May, 1989, when many of the same troops were called into Beijing to impose martial law and then eventually carry out the massacre.

Partly due to its lack of clear success, the Sino-Vietnam war became a forgotten affair. But it also left unexpected legacies. A couple of patriotic songs dedicated to the martyrs of that war became immensely popular among the public and especially the young students. During the 1989 student movement, they adopted the songs for their own as they faced down the very soldiers the songs had been written for.

The songs will be posted in subsequent posts of this blog.

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