Audrey Tang on why tackling misinformation is crucial in pandemic
Digital Minister Audrey Tang is arguably one of Taiwan’s most high-profile politicians internationally, renowned for her leadership in Taiwan’s fight against disinformation and her work in civic-minded open-source software.
Tang was already an established programmer when she began working for the government in the wake of 2014’s Taiwan’s Sunflowers Movement, a mass protest that saw students occupy the legislature to protest against a trade deal with China.
Since 2016, Tang has been a member of President Tsai Ing-wen’s cabinet as a minister without portfolio and is also a key member of g0v (“gov zero”), an activist open-source movement that works on civil society and government projects.
Al Jazeera spoke to Tang about her work fighting COVID-19 rumours and how social media like Taiwan’s PTT Bulletin Board – similar in structure to Reddit – can help. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Can you tell us about how you were involved in Taiwan’s contact tracing system? I imagine you had to help develop it quickly.
Audrey Tang: Sure, but it wasn’t my idea. It was part of the g0v, or the “Gov zero” community, which is tens of thousands of people looking at digital services and “forking” government services to make better versions and better alternatives in a way that’s free of copyright restrictions for public use. After the g0v community proposed a standard 1922-SMS (toll-free) based contact tracing system, we adopted and implemented it, so it was like a reverse procurement. The specifications came from the community, from the social sector, and we just implemented them. I think the entire implementation took less than three days, and it was free of apps – so nobody needed to download any app.
Why was it important to avoid using an app? What are your concerns?
Tang: Well, it’s out of digital inclusion reasons. Although everyone in Taiwan enjoys broadband as a human right, and most people – even the elderly – have phones or smartphones, around 20 percent do not have the capacity to download, install and maintain applications. Because of that, our most popular counter-COVID app, the National Health Insurance Administration’s NHI Express app has only (been downloaded) by about one-third of the entire population. So, to take care of the other two-thirds of people who do not habitually use the app or the 20 percent of people who do not have any experience downloading an app, an app-free design based on everyone’s favourite QR code and SMS-like trusted formats was very important.
What kind of digital system will Taiwan adopt for its vaccine cards?
Tang: We are implementing the European Union’s (Digital Curation Centre) standard, which is an electronically signed QR code-based system to track COVID tests as well as vaccination records. The current situation is that the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is negotiating bilaterally with other jurisdictions that have implemented the same standard so we can facilitate international travel. The rollout schedule is probably by the end of this year.
We’re not planning to roll out any special app because of digital inclusion. We’re working with the idea that there’s this simple website where you can download a yellow (vaccine) card and print it out yourself or just show it on your phone.
Has Covid-19 been your greatest challenge since taking office?
Tang: The virus of the body, of course, is very challenging but most of the strategies are from the (Taiwan Centers for Disease Control) decentralised command centre. The digital (side) is just assisting the contact tracers. My greatest challenge, as digital minister is actually the virus of the mind, that is to say, the infodemic – those polarised, outrage-based messages on the more antisocial corner of social media and how to prevent its natural progression into hatred, vengefulness and discrimination. That has been the biggest challenge.
What kind of examples have you seen in Taiwan?
Tang: In the pre-Covid days, around November 2019, leading up to our 2020 January presidential election, there was trending viral disinformation that talked about – and I quote – “young people in Hong Kong are being paid $20 million to kill the police” end of quote. This is obviously not true, but it’s not trending anywhere else, not in Hong Kong, just in Taiwan, so we saw this kind of message as trying to provoke and change the public discourse in an attempt to influence our presidential election campaigns.
Where did this rumour come from?
Tang: The picture that accompanied this piece of disinformation came from Reuters, but the Reuters journalist did not actually say anything about (protesters) being paid. The original caption simply says that there were teenage protesters, and that’s it. Somebody else supplied the misleading caption and within just a day or so, the Taiwan fact check centre, an independently operated fact-checking service, traced that message back to the Central Political and Law Units, Zhongyang Zhengfawei 中共中央政法委員會, of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) regime and on their Weibo account, no less.
Have you noticed any recent spike in disinformation with the escalation in Chinese military flights near Taiwan?
Tang: Not particularly. When people become aware of the factual situation, like the actual flight path, and so on, which our minister of defence publishes on social media literally every day, then people are more willing to have a conversation around the matter itself instead of buying in to any piece of misinformation.
A few months ago, Taiwan was having a major problem with COVID-related misinformation. Has the situation improved?
Tang: I think it’s going down, because (while) we’re certainly not entirely post-pandemic, we have had weeks of essentially no local cases. And I think we’ve postponed the pandemic again, so people are much more relaxed with vaccinations. I think by tomorrow, there will be 70 percent of people vaccinated and around 30 percent of people who are fully vaccinated, and we’re progressing at more than one percent each day.
Taiwan has stepped up vaccinations, which has helped to reduce COVID-19 to negligible levels [File: Ritchie B Tongo/EPA]
Since taking your position, how have you seen issues like misinformation change?
Tang: When I first started to tackle the misinformation issue back in early 2017, at that time there were no clear norms on what kind of disinformation (requires) public notice and countermeasures, and which are just a normal part of the conversation from people in a liberal democracy and therefore need no intervention from either the state or multinational companies.
This progression seemed only natural because we allowed public issues and public matters to be discussed primarily in private sector places, so it’s like holding a town hall discussion, but in the local nightclub with smoke-filled rooms and loud music, addictive drinks, and private bouncers.
I have nothing against the entertainment sector, but these are not the places to hold town hall discussions. Since 2017, we’ve doubled down on investing the digital equivalent of public infrastructure and working with existing forums like PTT (Bulletin Board), which has been around for more than 25 years, free of advertisers and shareholders.
It sounds like they have less of a problem with misinformation due to their governance structure?
Tang: Truth be told, ever since PTT started to implement to counter disinformation, self-regulation norms it’s as a “norm package”, not as a law or something that other media companies, including Facebook have also adopted — at least in our jurisdiction. For example, in 2019, as I mentioned, leading up to the 2020 presidential election, Taiwan was among the first jurisdictions where Facebook also published (information from) our national auditing office, campaign donations and finance spent on sponsored social and political advertisements in real-time as an open data set for investigative journalists.
They also found foreign-sponsored political and social advertisements during the election period, again, according to the norm package, so I believe a strong enough social sector and strong enough alternatives can motivate both domestic private sector companies, or international ones like Facebook, to conform to the norm that’s already set by the social sector.
Deng’s War: Assessing the Success of the Sino-Vietnamese War
Abstract The Sino-Vietnamese War remains one of the most peculiar military engagements during the Cold War. Conventional wisdom would hold that it was a proxy war in the vein of the United States’ war in Vietnam or the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan; however, it was far from either of these engagements, both in its scope and in its final goals. Military analysis holds that the Sino-Vietnamese War was a tremendous failure—Chinese troops massively underperformed when compared to Vietnamese soldiers. However, after a consideration of Deng’s political situation and the balance of power in Asia, the Sino-Vietnamese War can be recognized as a successful political ploy that both elevated Deng’s power within the Chinese Communist Party and China’s own power in Asia.
The goal of the invasion of Vietnam in 1979 by the People’s Republic of China was to consolidate the power of China externally and the power of Deng Xiaoping, its paramount leader, internally. Power was to be consolidated by strengthening China’s position in international politics, unifying party and military leadership, and increasing the perceived might of China within Southeast Asia. In short, the invasion successfully accomplished all goals set by Deng directly or shortly after the withdrawal of Chinese soldiers in March of 1979.
In 1979, still reeling from the death of its former leader, Mao Zedong, tensions on the Sino-Vietnamese border flared as Vietnam contested Chinese claims to the Paracel Islands and deported ethnic Chinese. Despite congenial relations throughout most of the twentieth century, as well as extensive Chinese aid during the Vietnamese military struggles against France and then the United States, the Sino-Vietnamese alliance deteriorated rapidly after 1972. Coupled with a new, Soviet-Vietnamese treaty that threatened China’s northern border, Deng endured considerable pressure to alleviate China’s external threats. Thus, although the CCP cited Vietnam’s Cambodian incursion as its main pretext for invading Vietnam, in reality the issue of Cambodia, when compared to the other problems the CCP faced at the time, was the least of Deng’s concerns and the invasion had larger goals.
Once the decision to invade Vietnam had been made, massive preparations commenced. Any invasion would require a well-trained and well-equipped military force. China’s military, despite initially high estimations of its might and capability, was sorely underprepared. The PLA (People’s Liberation Army) had not fought a conventional war since the Korean War, nearly three decades ago. In hindsight, it seems clear that, even before 1979, Deng’s eventual invasion of Vietnam was doomed. Soon, leaders of the CCP (Chinese Communist Party) would be forced to contend with a bleak reality as their original plans to rout the PAVN (People’s Army of Vietnam) devolved into a bloody quagmire. When the PLA withdrew from Vietnam after having occupied slivers of the country for a month, it appeared that the only thing either country had gained was a bloody nose and new piles of corpses. Furthermore, since Vietnamese forces would remain in Cambodia until 1985, the invasion would also appear to contemporaries to have failed.
However, China’s actual goal in invading Vietnam was not to occupy Vietnam, but rather to strengthen China’s international position. Thus, instead of counting casualties, or the number of cities the PLA captured, examining the conditions that existed before and after China’s invasion yields a sharper depiction of whether or not the war was truly a success. In fact, a more holistic approach that also examines party decision making and calculations reveals a considerably different picture of the Sino-Vietnamese War, one that shows the war as a calculated risk as opposed to a blind blunder. In particular, while several historians of this era provide useful insights into the decision-making of the era, their overarching interpretations can at times be faulty. In particular, two main assessments of the Sino-Vietnamese War prevail. One holds that, due to sub-par military training and overall underperformance of the PLA ground forces compared to the PAVN, the war was a failure. An analysis done by Henry J. Kenney for the United States Center for Naval Analyses shows the difficulty the PLA experienced in trying to out-battle the PAVN (Li, 2009). However, this fails to take into account the larger implications a war like the Sino-Vietnamese War held. Another, more holistic analysis holds that, despite these military setbacks, the war strengthened China’s position in Asia (Gompert et al., 2014). Historians such as David C. Gompert subscribe to this view. Although this essay shares many arguments with Gompert, his account of the Sino-Vietnamese War is also limited. In particular, he attributes a much stronger, aggressive quality to Vietnamese actions in Southeast Asia post-1975 and equates Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia as a part of a plan to establish a Vietnamese hegemony in the region (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 119). As will be explored, the reality is less belligerent than that; a synthesis of other works as well as further background history provide a much better overall picture of the Sino-Vietnamese conflict as well as its implications.
Section one of this essay discusses the origins of the war, including the Sino-Soviet split in 1950, and considers the problems that occupied the minds of Deng as well as the party history that influenced his decision making. Section two considers whether or not these goals were met. In summary, these three goals were all completed when the war concluded in March of 1979 or shortly thereafter, strengthening the CCP’s internal control over China as well as the Chinese state’s influence over its neighborhood.
Three Distinct Goals for Invasion
The decision to attack Vietnam was based on three distinct goals held by Deng: preventing Soviet encirclement, reconsolidating his own power, and re-establishing China as a regional hegemon. All goals had distinct origins and historical contexts, which are necessary to understanding Deng’s overall decision-making process. Both the conditions prevailing in 1979, as well as past experience, informed Deng’s final choice to attack.
Preventing Soviet Encirclement
Preventing the formation of a Soviet-Vietnamese alliance was of utmost importance to Beijing. The Sino-Soviet Split, or the increasingly antagonistic relationship that formed between China and the Soviet Union starting in 1950, left the CCP without another large communist ally in Asia. As noted by Danhui Li and Yafeng Xia, there are four main explanations for the Sino-Soviet split: conflicts in national interest, the pro-Soviet inclinations of several of Mao Zedong’s political rivals, different degrees of enmity towards the United States, and ideological differences (Li and Xia, 2014). The emergence of tension between the Soviet Union and China directly established conditions that would lead to Beijing’s eventual decision to invade Vietnam.
Tension between China and the USSR may be analyzed in several ways. It could be argued that there was already a sort of “unofficial war” occurring between the Soviet Union and China throughout the late 1960s and 1970s (Deshpande, 1969, p. 643). This included skirmishes along the northern border such as one in March of 1969, in which a Chinese ambush of Soviet border guards on Zhenbao Island ignited a firefight. Along with the Soviet Union’s recent invasion and repression of would-be reformers in Czechoslovakia, implementation of the Brezhnev Doctrine, and military buildup along the northern border, there was concern that China could be the next target for a Soviet take-over. Evidently, neither party intended to start a conventional war as the 1969 skirmish did not erupt into a conventional war. Moreover, Zhenbao was territory over which sovereignty was debatable and of minimal importance given that it lacked a large population. Although the apparent reticence of the USSR’s leadership to go to war could be explained by the theory of mutual assured destruction, in reality another fear was more important to the Soviets. According to high-ranking Soviet defector Arkady Shevchenko (1985):
The Politburo was terrified that the Chinese might make a large-scale intrusion into Soviet territory…A nightmare vision of invasion by millions of Chinese made the Soviet leaders almost frantic…Despite our overwhelming superiority in weaponry, it would not be easy for the USSR to cope with an assault of this magnitude. (p. 164)
A human tidal wave of mobilized PLA fighters seemed to be just as good a deterrent against the USSR as any nuclear weapon. Had the Soviets invaded, they would soon be “mired in an endless war (Shevchenko, 1985, p. 165).” Such concerns may well have been justified as Mao Zedong strongly believed that China could win in any nuclear war. As Mao said to Soviet Premier Nikita Kruschev in 1957:
We shouldn’t be afraid of atomic missiles. No matter what kind of war breaks out, conventional or nuclear, we will win… If the imperialists unleash war on us, we may lose more than 300 million people. So what? War is war. The years will pass, and we will get to work making more babies than ever before (Cairns and Rae, 2019).
Although Mao’s cavalier attitude towards nuclear war here could be viewed as bravado in the face of a foreign leader, it is likely that this is in fact reflective of Mao’s inner thoughts. The statement was made in the context of discussing war against a common enemy of both China and the USSR and it was not intended as a threat against the USSR (with which relations in 1957 were not so hostile as to demand a war). Since the PRC’s leadership’s willingness to countenance a nuclear war meant that directly intimidating China through border conflict was out of the question, Moscow would have to resort to a different way to ensure it had geopolitical power over, or was at least on par with, Beijing.
Another theory, a strategy of encircling China, is better suited to explaining the Soviet Union’s attempts to enhance its relationship with Vietnam. During the 1970s, Moscow gave extensive arms, including nuclear weapons, to India and other Asian countries bordering China, such as Afghanistan. As mentioned by Gompert, “Beijing viewed Moscow as backing countries against China (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 118).” If this is true, Soviet aid to Vietnam must then be viewed through the lens of containing China. As explained by Donaldson, the primary Soviet objective in Southeast Asia was, “the containment of Chinese influence and expansion in Asia (Donaldson, 1972, p. 476).” Ironically, in the 1970s the USSR was attempting to apply against China the same strategy that the USA had, throughout the Cold War, attempted to apply against it. Typically, the containment theory is associated with the American Foreign Service Officer George F. Kennan who, in his anonymously written article “The Sources of Soviet Conduct,” spoke of a Soviet state that would collapse upon itself as long as it was successfully contained (Kennan, 1987, pp. 852-868). However, unlike the US strategy of containment, the USSR had no expectation of the Chinese state collapsing but had a defensive military goal. The Soviet Union had internally always viewed China as somewhat of a threat, particularly after the Cultural Revolution which instilled a level of unpredictability in China’s every move and made increasing the USSR’s military strength in the Far East even more necessary, given the possibility (from the Soviet perspective) that the PRC’s leadership might be too irrational to be deterred by the preceding balance of forces (Prybyla, 1968, p. 388). Instead of the final goal being the eventual collapse of the rival country in the case of the United States, Moscow instead wished for an additional deterrent against the PLA’s massive numbers. Geographically, having Vietnam on Moscow’s side would be ideal. Soviet control of Vietnam meant an extension of Soviet military reach into the Malacca Straits, as well as control over a “warm water” port with unimpeded access to the world’s oceans. Clearly, with most of eastern Europe either under the direct control or tight grip of the politburo, it was time for the USSR to look south.
This international situation increased Vietnam’s importance to both the Soviet Union and China. At first, it may seem unreasonable for Moscow to have sought to use Vietnam in its rivalry with China. That nation, although traditionally opposed to imperial Chinese interference, including invasions under China’s Han, Song and Ming dynasties, gladly accepted the help and friendship of the new, Communist China. Chinese aid was extensive in the years after the Sino-Soviet split with PLA engineering and anti-aircrafts military personnel heavily active in Vietnam between 1965 and 1971 (Burton, 1979, p. 704). In September of 1975, a meeting with Vietnamese politician Lê Duẩn yielded a contract that equated to $200 million in USD worth of Chinese aid (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 118). However, during this time, the Soviet Union evidently believed that by increasing its material support for Vietnam, it could successfully woo Hanoi to its side. As was consistent with Breznhev’s doctrine of foreign aid to other Soviet allies, Moscow greatly increased its military aid to Vietnam. Gompert notes that, “Hanoi allowed Moscow to use its naval ports and build missile bases that could house Soviet missiles aimed at China. The Soviet Union reciprocated by asking Vietnam to join the Soviet-led Council for Mutual Economic Assistance… (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 119)” At the same time, China and the USSR’s relationship continued to sour. From 1968 to 1972, the USSR consistently gave more aid to Vietnam when compared to China (CIA, 1974). The quality of weapons given by the USSR was also better than those given by China. Going into the 1970s, Soviet aid consisted of high technology and expensive weapons such as surface-to-air missiles as well as MiG fighter aircraft (CIA, 1974). Moscow’s increase in both quantity and quality of aid thus signaled a direct attempt by the USSR to win the favor of Hanoi. With Vietnam in the pocket of the Soviet Union, Moscow would have little trouble dominating a now physically surrounded China. In Hanoi, top Vietnamese officials were acutely aware of the growing animosity between the two Communist giants in Asia, and had been from at least 1962, when North Vietnam had directly attempted to mediate the conflict between the two states, with Ho Chi Minh stressing Communist unity an indispensable condition (Chen, 1964, p. 1024). However by the mid-1970s, North Vietnam’s neutral position became untenable, forcing Hanoi to engage in a delicate balancing act so that aid would continue to flow until the fall of Saigon (Birgerson, 1997, p. 218). The delicate balance was finally broken in 1978 with the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia; Vietnam’s hand was forced by several bloody Cambodian incursions into Vietnamese border villages, one of which in 1977 resulted in the deaths of over 1,000 Vietnamese civilians (O’Dowd’, 2009, p. 37). The invasion of Cambodia pushed Hanoi firmly into the USSR’s camp because it was a direct attack against a clear, direct ally of China. Further, Vietnam’s position was to remain that way for the foreseeable future.
The slowly forming Soviet “C-ring” around China seems to have pressured Deng into seeking a warmer relationship with the west. The solidification of Moscow’s relationship with Hanoi, if left unchecked, would have left China effectively “landlocked” by the USSR, India, and Vietnam, with their only potential escape route through the South China Sea, currently under the control of the United States Navy. The presence of the Soviet Navy in the Indian and Pacific Oceans certainly did nothing to assuage the CCP’s fear of encirclement. An assessment of Soviet Naval power in the region from 1970 concluded that the Soviet Navy was, “virtually without competition (Millar, 1970, p. 12).” In 1979, with Deng’s visit to the United States, it seemed as if a part of the problem had been resolved. Certainly, Richard Nixon was Deng’s “trump card” in foreign policy. Evidently though, the Vietnam question was not one that China could leave unanswered.
Reconsolidation of Deng’s Power
Deng’s odyssey to solidify his own power within the CCP and the PLA also motivated the decision to invade Vietnam. Deng’s vision of a modern China could not be fulfilled without a CCP that answered to his every order. In any situation where a larger-than-life figure suddenly vacates a position, it logically falls to their successor to attempt to either establish themselves or prove themselves as a worthy replacement. Certainly, in the case of Mao Zedong, a man who achieved near deity status among his followers (Liang, 1984), any leader would have to prove himself to both party leadership and the general public.
During the Cultural Revolution (“the Revolution”), Deng had lost prestige, connections, and institutional power, and needed to recover them quickly. Many high-ranking party officials, Deng included, were purged during this time period, faced social ostracism and were also forced to abdicate their positions of power and leadership. In particular, at the 1966 Central Work Conference, Deng, along with Liu Shaoqi were forced to self-criticize, after which Deng was sent to an engine factory in Jiangxi province as a part of the Revolution’s re-education process (MacFarquhar and Schoenhals, 2006, p. 137). The Revolution proved to be a direct contest between Mao and the upper echelons of the CCP over who truly held power. As Ross Terrill notes, “[t]ruth and the authority of the Party were thereafter quite separable in Mao’s mind…so that in 1966 he believed that truth could be established [against] the authority of the party (Terrill, 1999, p. 349).” At the end of the Revolution, with the help of his populist appeal amongst peasants and the established “Red Guards,” Mao was able to remind all members of the politburo that he was the true ruler of all twenty three provinces of China. When he died, there would never be another leader of Communist China that could generate the same degree of support that Mao had enjoyed. However, most likely due to rapidly deteriorating health, by the end of the revolution in 1976, Mao rarely held the same rallies that had once dotted the countryside during the heyday of the Cultural Revolution. When the equally beloved leader Zhou Enlai died in 1976, it was most likely Mao’s health that barred him from attending his funeral (Short, 1999, p. 620). Zhou’s funeral was followed by the Tiananmen Incident of 1976, in which dissidents protested the actions of the “Gang of Four” headed by Mao’s wife, Jiang Qing. Deng, allegedly only in the city for a haircut, was accused of inciting the violence, earning him his second purge within the Cultural Revolution timeframe. This was the situation Deng now faced. Stripped of nearly all his leadership positions, it was perhaps only out of camaraderie with former comrades and reverence towards him by subordinates, developed on the Long March, that Deng was allowed to keep his party membership. Eventually, through political maneuvering, Deng was able to regain much of the power he lost during the Cultural Revolution. Clearly however, his position had been weakened, and as evidenced by the Tiananmen Square Protest in 1989, he would not enjoy the same level of populist support as Mao had in his prime.
Deng, when he had regained his power, worried greatly about the state of the PLA. As Gompert comments, “Deng was worried not only about the quality of the PLA but also about [the] loyalty of its leaders and the potential that PLA generals would split China into military fiefdoms (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 119).” Deng’s worries were valid. For one, the strength of the PLA had not been tested since the Korean War. The three main commanders of the PLA during the Korean War, had either died of natural causes, been purged during the Cultural Revolution, or both by 1979. One of the field commanders of the more recent Sino-Indian War of 1962, Liu Bocheng, was still alive, but had gone completely blind. Lin Biao, widely considered to be China’s greatest military strategist, also died prior to 1979. Needless to say, either as a result of time or purge, the PLA’s ability had been greatly hobbled. Similar to how Stalin’s purges crippled the Red Army during the 1930s, the PLA had undergone a similar process, greatly weakening its overall strength as a fighting force. Comparatively, Vietnam had more or less existed in a constant state of war since 1940 when Japan invaded the country as a part of its “Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere” policy, and consequently had a disproportionately large number of experienced veterans and a populace inured to the suffering of warfare. The PAVN’s general, Võ Nguyên Giáp, had guided the country’s troops in successfully expelling three major world powers (Japan, France, and the United States). Although Võ was certainly inspired by what was technically Maoist guerilla warfare, he had tailored it over three decades to suit Vietnam’s terrain and resources. The possibility of PLA generals splitting China into military fiefdoms seems less likely. Deng’s concerns most likely resulted from fears that emerged as the CCP was first developing. Deng had reached maturity right as the Republic of China (1911-1949) was devolving into infighting amongst local warlords, the KMT (Kuomintang), and later the CCP. Having witnessed firsthand how regional loyalties tore apart Chinese unity, it would make sense for this fear to carry on into the policy of his leadership years. Markedly however, the China of Deng’s youth and the China of the late twentieth century differed vastly. More likely was that Deng thought that the intense factionalism within the PLA would hinder its ability to perform as a unified front against a strong enemy (Leng et al., 2004, pp. 459-460). Deng further sought to strengthen the party’s control over the Chinese military, as well as institute his reforms, through the use of political commissars (Communist Party cadres who serve in the ranks of the PLA). Under Deng’s new system put forth in 1978, and prior to the invasion of Vietnam, commissars would have been allowed to exercise enormous powers throughout the army (Kondapalli, 2005, p. p12). In any case, Deng’s fears about the poor quality of PLA generals and the Chinese military in general makes more sense given the circumstances of the Chinese army in the late 1970s—the idea that the generals would take their respective divisions and split China into fiefdoms seems less likely. Gompert observes that, a “war was a way to battle test the PLA and could provide Deng with more control over the PLA by allowing him to control China’s use of force and appoint military personnel (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 119).” Putting an ineffective military through a conflict would quickly expose any issues in leadership or command structure.
Re-establishing both his institutional power and his legitimacy in the eyes of other senior party officials was of utmost importance to Deng after the Cultural Revolution. Arguably, launching a war also had other benefits. For one, dissent against the party, or in this case Deng, could be silenced as “unpatriotic.” In addition, a popular war is a great way to unify a country towards a single, nationalistic, cause. Either way, Deng’s path in consolidating his own power through an invasion of Vietnam would take on many forms, all of which directly relate to his decision to invade Vietnam.
Reestablishing China as a Hegemon
Either as a result of internal strife or external threat, China’s perceived strength had declined significantly by the 1970s. Although China’s military strength had not necessarily declined absolutely, it appeared that Vietnam’s power had increased substantially in comparative terms, which represented a weakening of China’s relative position. The Cultural Revolution had also greatly hobbled the leadership of both the CCP and the PLA. Of the 174 members of the Central Committee, 166 had been purged during its 10-year course (Singh, 1968, p. 330). The methods Beijing could take to reestablish Chinese hegemony in the region would have been severely limited at the time. As previously established, the proverbial line in the sand had already been drawn, placing Vietnam with the USSR in opposition against China—diplomacy would have most likely been a fruitless endeavor. Further, there were examples of Vietnamese actions against China (described below) that, certainly on an international scale, would have been viewed as staunchly defying Chinese authority and belittling China’s power in Southeast Asia. It is important to note that the reality of how much Deng personally cared about these transgressions or whether they were in-line with traditional Chinese practices is not necessarily relevant—and it will in fact be seen that true Chinese care over these supposed transgressions was perhaps lukewarm at best. Instead, actions need to be interpreted on the scale of how they would affect international prestige, as this was the framework that both Deng, Vietnam, and the rest of the world operated in throughout the Cold War era.
Deng viewed, or at least used, the expulsion of the Hoa people as evidence of Hanoi’s aggression. The Hoa were ethnic Chinese that had resided in Vietnam for generations. In Vietnamese society, the Hoa had allegedly managed a considerable amount of wealth as a whole and had found much success in pre-1975 Saigon (Chua, 2004, p. 34). Thus, when the RVN (Republic of Vietnam) collapsed in 1975, the Hoa, and their wealth, became the staple “bourgeois” targets of the new, socialist government. A speech given by Chinese politician Zhong Xidong aptly summarizes Beijing’s stance:
As to the disputes between China and [Vietnam] on the question of Chinese nationals, the Chinese Government, proceeding from the same position, had the hope of seeking a prompt solution through private consultations and made unremitting efforts to this end. However, the Vietnamese side did not respond to the goodwill and efforts of the Chinese side. On the contrary, it has escalated its anti-China and anti-Chinese activities and intensified its discrimination against and ostracism, persecution and expulsion of Chinese nationals…This state of affairs is the making of the Vietnamese side alone (Zhong, 1978).
It is perhaps hypocritical that Beijing should use this information against Vietnam. Chinese society had undergone a similar upheaval during its formative years where the previous middle and upper classes were either expelled or killed. Although in China’s case there was no other power to vouch for the privileged classes, many Chinese were happy to oust their own countrymen due to their previous wealth. However, given China’s angle in this situation, it makes sense for Zhong’s speech to omit the reasoning behind Hanoi’s expulsion of the Hoa people as well as the exact class of Hoa people that were being removed from their positions of power. Many other Hoa people, particularly those not in the bourgeoisie of Vietnam, had in fact served Vietnam either as members of the Vietnamese communist party or as attendees of the first National Assembly of the newly unified Vietnam in 1976 (Gough 1986, p. 83). It seems that the Hoa had long been alienated from their traditional Chinese roots and had found an honorable place for themselves in their new, Vietnamese homeland. Allegedly, there were also attempts by Chinese spies, particularly in late-1970, to woo the Hoa back to China with promises of wealth that came alongside the more subliminal threat of violence should they not return (Gough 1986, p. 85).
Although this point of direct saboteur involvement is contested by both sides and is difficult to prove, it is interesting to note that China closed its land border to Vietnam in 1978. Beijing’s “protection” of the Hoa people was a hoax—the Hoa were instead being pawned for their situational importance in the political situation between China and Vietnam. The rich Hoa who had once been the backbone of the southern Vietnamese economy now found themselves in a foreign country that did not want them and being taken in by an ambivalent homeland that wished to use their expulsion as a justification for invasion. On an international scale however, such an action taken against ethnic Chinese, particularly in another country so close to the mainland’s border, could be potentially devastating for China’s international image as the hegemon in Southeast Asia. Certainly, as evidenced by the international statements given by Zhong, China ultimately came to the conclusion that it must take a stalwart stance against the Vietnamese, placing the blame of the expulsion of the Hoa squarely on the shoulders of the government in Hanoi. The wording of the speech makes it clear that the Chinese view Vietnam as the aggressors and thus further justifies their use of this “anti-Chinese” action as pretext for their eventual invasion.
Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia was used as further evidence proving Hanoi’s alleged aggression. The Cambodian incursion served merely as justification for China to invade Vietnam as opposed to be an actual goal of the invasion. China’s position against Vietnam was reinforced in another statement made by statesman Chen Chu, “[o]n the question of the dispute between Viet Nam and [Cambodia], it is only natural for China not to give sympathy and support to Viet Nam’s policies of aggression and expansion (Chen, 1978).” China’s view of Vietnamese aggression was not an anomaly. As Gompert correctly notes, “…Vietnam’s attack on Cambodia threatened Thailand and had led to the formation of a strong Association of Southeast Asian Nations coalition opposed to Vietnam (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 124).” Although ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) was formed in 1967, a decade before Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia, the war certainly tightened their relations (Jones and Smith, 2007, p. 53).
As Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia reached its peak, the Thai government, under Kriangsak Chamanan, directly negotiated with Deng to harbor leaders of the Khmer Rouge in exchange for political assistance. A line was presently being drawn in the region; on one side was Vietnam, backed by the Soviet Union, and on the other were the countries of ASEAN, backed by China. The United States would slowly play a larger role in the exchange, but still recovering from the Vietnam War, it took more of an observatory role. Despite this general consensus against Vietnamese aggression, Hanoi’s overthrow of the Khmer Rouge is, rightly, remembered as a just cause. Overlooked in all of Cambodia’s exchanges with Deng, ASEAN, and even in Cambodian Prince Sihanouk’s appeal to the United Nations were the egregious transgressions of human rights occurring under the Khmer Rouge. Coupled with the massacre of Vietnamese citizens at the border between Vietnam and Cambodia, there seemed to be a greater, more pressing motive for invasion than any bid for regional hegemony. Some historians, such as Gompert, seem to take China’s explanations of Vietnamese aggression at face value and assert that the invasion of Cambodia as a step in realizing “Vietnam’s dreams of dominating Indochina (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 119).” However, it seems doubtful that Vietnam actually wanted to do so.
As explained above, the invasion of Cambodia was done by Vietnam wishing to directly retaliate against massacres of Vietnamese citizens by the Khmer Rouge. Furthermore, along with having to rebuild after a near decade-long war, Hanoi now faced the task of incorporating the second half of Vietnam under the new communist regime. As writer Gabriel García Márquez notes, “The cost of this delirium was stupefying: 360,000 people mutilated, a million widows, 500,000 prostitutes, 500,000 drug addicts, a million tuberculous and more than a million soldiers of the old regime, impossible to rehabilitate into a new society (Marquez, 1980).” The United States, with its position on the United Nations security council, was able to block Vietnam from being recognized as a country three times, delaying potential foreign aid (New York Times, 1977, September 21). It seems unlikely that Vietnam was in any shape to establish a hegemony; rather, it wished to consolidate itself as it had finally achieved the near century-long goal of unification under a non-foreign government. Interestingly, there were also many Chinese nationals living in Cambodia, just as there were in Vietnam. Yet, Beijing did not comment nor react to their wholesale slaughter by the Khmer Rouge. Vietnamese statesman Nhan Dan’s lamentations in mid-1978 succinctly captures the overarching irony in China’s simultaneous condemnation of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and supposed protection of the Hoa bourgeoisie:
The socialist transformation of private capitalist industry and trade, a universal law of socialist revolution, has been achieved in China. But when it is being carried out in Vietnam, should it stop before masses of property owned by bourgeoisie just because they are Vietnamese of Chinese descent? Why has the Chinese side taken such great interest in a handful of Vietnamese bourgeois of Chinese descent who have shifted to being producers and workers? Hundreds of thousands of Chinese residents in [Cambodia] who were workers have, together with their families, been mercilessly persecuted and massacred in or expelled from [Cambodia] (Hung, 1979, pp. 1044-44).
The CCP’s simultaneous condemnation of Vietnam’s invasion of Cambodia and supposed support of foriegn Chinese is clearly contradictory and thus suggests neither were genuine concerns, but rather pretexts. In reality, the political implications of a nation both invading an ally and expelling nationals was the real reason China would condemn both actions. It is certainly true that the CCP reacted as if Vietnam were attempting to establish a hegemony in Southeast Asia, but the reality is both deeper and perhaps bleaker than that.
In the end, whether or not Hanoi truly wished to dominate southeast Asia was less important than how their actions were perceived by a keenly observant, and somewhat nervous, Deng. With hindsight, the wording of public statements made by Chinese statesmen, such as that of Zhong, firmly place blame on the opposing side—the sources seem more to be an attempt on China’s part to justify its own decision to invade Vietnam as opposed to a true definition of goals. The CCP was keenly observing the actions of Vietnam and wanted to preemptively ensure that it would not contest Chinese interests in the region, regardless of if they truly intended to.
Were Deng’s Goals Met?
With all the pieces for invasion set, Deng, convinced that Vietnam’s position was a large threat to national security, ordered a “self-defensive counterattack” against Hanoi (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 122). Deng’s position as the Chief of General Staff of the PLA allowed him to directly oversee the movement of troops in the days prior to the execution of the invasion. China’s best troops remained stationed at the northern border, in case of Soviet retaliation. Chinese generals estimated that the northern border was undermanned and that any Soviet counter would take at least 30 days to execute. Wishing to take advantage of this timeframe, Deng decreed the invasion should last no longer than one month. With military objectives similar to the highly successful Sino-Indian War, hopes remained high among the high command of the PLA. From December of 1978 to January of 1979, the PLA began recruiting new units with varying degrees of success. However, as Zhang notes, “such a frantic last-minute effort was, though helpful, definitely insufficient…training was largely concentrated on basic soldier skills such as shooting and grenade throwing, with few units able to carry out any meaningful tactical training or exercise at regiment and divisional levels (Zhang, 2005, p. 862).” The war did not go as planned.
What initially began as a strategic, three-pronged attack quickly morphed into a mutual exchange of advancement with ambiguous net gain. In March, Deng ordered the immediate withdrawal of all PLA forces in the area, marking the end of the Sino-Vietnamese War. Although Deng declared the gates to Hanoi to be “open,” not a single PLA soldier set foot even remotely close to the capital. Both sides declared victory. Contemporary analysis done by Henry J. Kenney for the United States Center for Naval Analyses noted that PAVN troops generally outperformed the PLA. Even Deng himself admitted that the war had “not gone quite so well (Dreyer, 1993).” Despite limited military success, all three of Deng’s initial goals were achieved: The Soviet-Vietnam alliance had been weakened, Deng’s own internal position was strengthened, and China’s overall power in Southeast Asia was re-solidified.
Soviet-Vietnam Alliance Weakened
Fear of the Soviet-Vietnam Alliance, one of Deng’s major worries, was largely quelled after the invasion. The worst-case scenario in the mind of the CCP was that the Soviet Union would invade China as soon as the PLA stepped onto Vietnamese soil. However, as demonstrated by Shevchenko’s quote, the politburo feared greatly the consequences of such an incursion. Despite this fear, Moscow continued to bluff that it would protect Vietnam; Deng called their bluff. Moscow, having no true intention of invading China, was forced to keep its troops at bay, thus exposing the true strength of the Soviet-Vietnam alliance.
It must be noted that the politburo did greatly increase military aid to Vietnam during the invasion. An estimated 400 tanks, 500 mortar and anti-air pieces, 50 BM-21 rocket launchers, 400 portable surface-to-air missiles, 800 anti-tank missiles and 20 jet fighters were all provided to the PAVN to expel the PLA. In addition, 15 ships of the Soviet Pacific Fleet were stationed along the peninsula in order to aid in communications and intelligence gathering (Kelemen, 1984). It must also be noted that, as a part of Deng’s “limited war” strategy, China’s navy and air force were kept out of the invasion. Deng, although bold in his direct invasion of Vietnam, was still wary of Soviet intervention should aerial or naval tactics be utilized extensively. As a result, Chinese troops deployed to Vietnam were supported mainly by Type 59, Type 62, and Type 63 tanks (Xin, 2004). Despite copious Soviet aid, what would have been a sign of a strong commitment to Vietnam by Moscow was the direct deployment of Red Army combat units. However, while it is one thing to aid a country, it is entirely another thing to send troops to fight in a foreign war. In this vein, most of the efforts in maintaining the Soviet “C-ring” seemed to lie now in maintaining the politburo’s position in the middle east, particularly in Afghanistan. The theory behind encirclement was that Vietnam would act as the Soviet Union’s farthest operational point with the rest of the ring being formed by Afghanistan and India. As the twentieth century trudged onward, the rest of the Soviet ring also seemed to face stress. For one, religious fundamentalists in Afghanistan sought to oppose the rule of the socialist government stationed in Kabul. After the 1978 Saur Revolution, the new socialist government sought to implement many changes that were unpopular among the local population. After many calls for assistance against the insurgents, Brezhnev was forced to send troops into the region as a way to ensure the security of Moscow’s middle eastern claims and as a way to back up the Soviet commitment to the Brezhnev doctrine.
It seems that, in this case, two main factors influenced the Soviet Union’s decision to not directly send troops to Vietnam: the threat of a war of attrition with China and other regional conflicts that needed to be addressed. Specifically, in the late 1970s, both the socialist government in Kabul and the one in Hanoi were under attack; however, the Soviet Union only directly intervened on the behalf of the socialist government in one nation. In choosing not to intervene with troops in Vietnam, the Soviet Union demonstrated that Vietnam was less vital to its interests than Afghanistan. Moscow did deploy the Red Army in 1979 to Afghanistan, signaling that the politburo was willing to deploy troops, however only in situations it deemed to be the direst. Comparing the two situations from a retrospective angle seems to indicate Moscow’s judgement as faulty. For one, the invasion of Afghanistan was done to facilitate a coup against the current president whereas Vietnam was under direct attack from China. Although facilitating a coup against the socialist government in Kabul was certainly not a step towards stronger Afghan-Soviet relations, the direct actions of Moscow in the middle east, and their inaction in Vietnam, showed Hanoi that their priorities were somewhere else. Deng’s maneuvering and definition of the incursion as being limited in scope seemed to help create a sort of understanding within the politburo that the Vietnam situation was not of great importance. Undeniably, the war did not strengthen Sino-Vietnamese relations; border clashes continued throughout the 1980s. However, Vietnam, feeling more isolated, could not feasibly maintain its position as the Soviet Union’s stopgap in southeast Asia.
The Soviet Union’s actions, although rational, were judged with a different set of criteria by Hanoi. Instead of understanding, Vietnam felt isolated in a part of the world that saw it as the aggressor. Such was Deng’s exact goal. Hanoi’s feeling of being cut off would help in proving Deng’s wit as a statesman and increasing Chinese power, both of which are the two goals of the invasion discussed below.
Deng’s Internal Position Strengthened
Deng’s position as the paramount leader of China was greatly strengthened as a result of the war. As the Vice-Chairman of the State Council, Deng’s position already allowed him much control over internal Chinese politics. Similar to how Stalin used a similar position in the Soviet Union to maneuver himself into a greater position of power, Deng’s position afforded him many similar privileges. Thus, the matter was not merely one of power, but rather of the trust that other leaders in the CCP and PLA had in him and his decision-making abilities. As previously stated, Deng’s loss of his positions during the Cultural Revolution meant that he would not enjoy the same spectacle of influence as Mao had. Further, there was not yet any reason to suspect that Hua, technically the successor of Mao, was not fit for his position of rule. However, the war would both prove Deng’s capabilities as a statesman and allow him to eliminate any inefficiencies in the command structure of the PLA, directly solidifying his position as the de facto leader of the CCP.
The lessons learned by the PLA also cannot be ignored. One of Deng’s original goals was to strengthen China’s military, and certainly after a fiasco of an invasion, PLA leadership came back to China with many lessons they found necessary to implement. As Zhang notes:
[The war] was the first time that the PLA leadership conducted combined arms operations with tanks and artillery in support of infantry attacks, while assembling air and naval forces to provide cover. Backwardness in doctrine and tactics prevented the Chinese forces from carrying out a real coordinated operation…A clear example was that the infantry had never trained with adequate knowledge of how to maneuver with tank units. Infantry soldiers, who fastened themselves to the top of tanks with ropes to prevent themselves from falling off on the march, were stuck when fired upon by the enemy. On the other hand, tank units, which often operated without infantry support and direct communication between the two parties, suffered many unexpected damages and losses (Zhang, 2005, p. 871).
In particular, the piece on tank combat emphasizes the outdated nature of the PLA’s tactics. Operating tanks without infantry support leaves it open to ambush with explosives, a lesson duly noted by armies during WWII. Communication between ground troops and the tank was also important as noted by the addition of phones on the outside of the United States’ M48A1 Patton Tanks used a decade earlier in Vietnam (Lcks, 1971). There is no doubt that Deng’s idea that a war would help improve the army’s doctrine and command structure worked. The war had proved a treasure trove of lessons for the future of the PLA’s combined arms doctrine.
The breathing room that the Sino-Vietnamese gave the CCP was duly noted amongst its higher circles. Perhaps incredulously, the war had simultaneously diminished the threat of both Vietnamese aggression as well as direct Soviet intervention on the behalf of its satellites. Gompert correctly states that, “…the war with Vietnam allowed Deng to push for military reform and consolidate his political power (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 125).” Although Gompert backs up evidence of military reform with this rotation of officers, Gompert seems to provide little evidence in terms of consolidating political control. In China’s case, military reform often meant earning political power due to the strong relationship between the PLA and the CCP. Many powerful figures often held positions of power in both the government and the military, thus the effect of over winning the military often transferred to the political party as well. Much of this interconnection between the party and military has to do with the history of the party. The birth of the PRC (People’s Republic of China) was borne via the PLA through the Long March and subsequent Chinese Civil War. In many ways, the party would not exist without the army, and the army would not exist without the party. In comparison to Stalin who actively purged the military, Mao, and subsequent leaders, frequently used the military as extensions of their own power.
As a result, many of the party’s top command had fought or served with the PLA at some point in time. Military service came with great prestige and, in the case of Deng, saved him from losing even his party membership card. With this connection established, Deng’s tactics that allowed him to achieve absolute power became much clearer. As Gompert continues, “Deng thus used the Vietnam debacle to promote younger and junior officers loyal to him and forced out elders who had power and could threaten him and his agenda.” Omitted from Gompert’s writing is the maneuvering Deng did against Hua Guofeng, an equally important barrier on Deng’s road to paramount power. The issue lay mainly in proving that he was a better statesman than Hua. After all, since Mao decreed that Hua should succeed him, and given the lingering reverence for the Mao years, it seemed unbelievable that someone should try to oust him so quickly. However, the war proved otherwise. Despite military failures, the war had granted considerable geopolitical influence on China.
More importantly, since Deng was the Chief of Staff of the PLA, the war was clearly Deng’s war; credit was clearly out of the reach of Hua, solidifying Deng as a capable foreign strategist. Eventually, Deng was also able to expose Hua’s ignorance to the lacking economic gains that China was making, painting him a light that showed not a capable successor, but a nepotic inheritor (Shambaugh, 1993, p. 483). Although Hua did not necessarily oppose the Four Modernizations Deng would eventually pursue, he certainly demonstrated a lack of understanding of them. Later in 1979, Deng forced Hua to abdicate his position as Premier of the State council, replacing him with Zhao Ziyang, Deng’s protégé (Shambaugh, 1993, p. 484). Perhaps ironically, despite his purge during the Cultural Revolution, Mao had always thought highly of Deng, remarking to Khrushchev in 1957, “See that little man there? He’s highly intelligent and has a great future ahead of him (Hunt, 2016, 354).”
Mao’s original assumption would prove correct as eliminating Hua and any others that opposed Deng’s rule would allow him to truly fulfill his vision of a modern China. Deng was right in calling out Hua for not understanding the modernizations. Both the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution had set China behind tremendously compared to other Asian countries. Although 1960’s steel production was up to 19 million tons, 1.35 million greater than in 1952, in 1961, production fell drastically back down to 8 million tons (Watkins, 1979). After the Cultural Revolution, steel tonnage that had been up to 25.5 million in 1973 fell back down to 21 million in 1976. From 1960 to 1976, a net 10 percent gain had been achieved (Watkins, 1979). The so-called Four Asian Tigers (Korea, Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong) had undergone a rapid change in both GDP and production possibilities, all of which increased both the quality of life of each country’s citizens as well as the prestige of their governments. Deng sought to replicate the success that he saw around him by implementing the Four Modernizations in agriculture, industry, defense, and technology. Although the Four Modernizations had existed prior to Deng’s ascension to power, and even prior to Mao’s death (People’s Daily, 2016), without Deng’s pursuits, the modernizations would have remained theoretical. On a broader scale, had the invasion of Vietnam not occurred, much of the success of modern China would not have been possible given the fractured nature of the PLA leadership at the time. High ranking officials in the PLA could hardly agree neither foreign nor domestic policy prior to 1979 (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 125). Without a strong leader like Deng, they would have likely never been able to confer. As evidenced by the December of 1978 meeting of the Central Military Commission, attendees were keener on arguing amongst themselves than solving China’s foremost issues (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 126). This need for leadership is further stressed by even members within the higher circles of the PLA. Zhang Sheng, son of the senior PLA general Zhang Aiping and on the General Staff during the meeting, argues that this infighting would have continued if it had not been for the invasion of Vietnam (Zhang, 2010, p. 20).
The fact that Deng’s modernizations even occurred in the first place stands as the strongest testament to the consolidation of his power after the Sino-Vietnamese War—it was the newfound power Deng had obtained in the upper echelons of the CCP that allowed him to press his reforms toward, despite opposition from hardliners such as Hua. Clearly, the consolidation of Deng’s power had benefits not just for himself, but also for China. Thus, both are used as evidence of the fact that he did have power. The Sino-Vietnamese War, although billed as “Deng’s War” was ultimately used to catapult Deng into power as opposed to be an action of his administration.
China’s Power in Southeast Asia Solidified
The final goal, the reconsolidation of Chinese power in southeast Asia, was accomplished in two ways via the Sino-Vietnamese War. Firstly, by beating down purported Vietnamese aggression, China made clear that it would not tolerate any attempts by its southern neighbors to try to exert influence in the region. Secondly, the Sino-Vietnamese War greatly increased cooperation between China and the United States, thus starting to define China as being on the side of the countries that would emerge from the Cold War as economic, military, and political powerhouses.
From a foreign relations standpoint, other countries perceived China to be essentially policing Vietnam after their “unauthorized” invasion of Cambodia. This was in part also helped by the numerous statements released by the CCP condemning Vietnam’s Cambodian incursion. Despite these speeches, the importance of Cambodia was nil compared to the threat of Vietnamese aggression at the Chinese border. Further, the two cited reasons for invasion (the Cambodian incursion and the expulsion of the Hoa people) were not accomplished by the invasion. Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia in large numbers until 1989 (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 125). China’s invasion of Vietnam had clearly not budged the PAVN’s position in the region. In 1978, a year prior to the invasion, the Chinese government closed its land border with Vietnam, blocking the flow of Hoa people they were supposedly trying to protect (Xinhua 1978). Clearly, the two claimed reasons for invasion were not Deng’s real motives, and his actions after the invasion reinforced this fact. Through the 1980s, Deng could continue to keep fresh troops at the border in order to reinforce the lessons of the war (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 126).
Not only providing an opportunity to train the new PLA, keeping large troops at the border allowed China to continue to exert its dominance over Vietnam. Border skirmishes continued into the early 90s, finally ending in a 1991 cease-fire agreement. Politically, the war had created a state of panic in Hanoi. The fact that Soviet Union had not swooped in to assist the Vietnamese fueled the sense that they were truly alone in southeast Asia. The recent invasion of Cambodia certainly had created no new friends and had in fact increased regional solidarity against Vietnam (Gompert et al., 2014, p. 124). Further, at a period in which the economy of Vietnam was in shambles, the constant funding levied for state defense hindered the growth of the Vietnamese economy (Zhang, 2005, p. 868). Hanoi was now getting a taste of the “millions of Chinese” fear that Moscow expressed in their decision not to intervene. The huge manpower advantage of China allowed Deng to keep troops at both the Soviet and Vietnamese borders while simultaneously mobilizing workers to implement his economic reforms and boost GDP growth. The consequences of invading Cambodia, and in turn going against the will of Deng, had been made clear to Hanoi. Having no other choice, and being surrounded by enemies, all Vietnam could do was wait and hope that another invasion would not come. Clearly, China called the shots in the region, not Vietnam. As Deng remarked to President Jimmy Carter in a state visit, “we consider it necessary to put a restraint on the wild ambitions of the Vietnamese and give them an appropriate limited lesson (Carter Library, 2019).”
Deng’s state visit to the United States marks another important piece in the reestablishment of Chinese hegemony: bringing Beijing to the side of the victors. By 1980, either out of necessity due to the Sino-Soviet split or genuine realization that the west would “win” the Cold War, Deng had begun the process of slowly normalizing China’s relationship with the west. The Sino-Vietnamese War was a high water in Sino-American cooperation. As American diplomat Henry Kissinger notes, “[the war] ushered in the closest collaboration between China and the United States for the period of the Cold War… [there was] an extraordinary degree of joint action (Kissinger, 2011, pp. 371-373).” It seemed that Washington understood that the nature of the conflict was not necessarily directly between China and Vietnam, but rather part of a greater tension between the Soviet Union and China. Kissinger and Deng, seeing this mutual goal, sought to capitalize on each other’s position. In the rest of Asia, the Four Asian Tigers had all prospered from the implementation of free-market systems, western cooperation, or some combination of the two. Here, the definition of hegemony reverts back to its previous definition. With Vietnam out of the picture in terms of contesting Chinese power in the region, Deng now focused on improving the political power of China on a global scale. In this case, power meant parlaying with the United States and other western powers. The so-called “Ping Pong Diplomacy” that had transpired in the early 70s is now flowering into an increasingly strong relationship between Washington and Beijing. Although the relationship arguably had transpired more out of a common enemy, the Soviet Union, than common goals, by the 1990s, the connection was markedly present.
Chinese hegemony was reestablished by putting down Vietnam and establishing a working relationship between Beijing and Washington, both of which occurred as a result of the Sino-Vietnamese War. Deng’s suppression of Vietnam and simultaneous diplomacy with the west allowed him to knock down a rival to the CCP’s rival in Asia while also solidifying the PRC’s own power with a west that was increasingly more likely to “win” the Cold War. This political maneuver, albeit risky for his time, ensured that China would emerge out of the twentieth century as an economic, political, and military powerhouse.
The Sino-Vietnamese War, as a whole, represented one of the largest feats of Cold War maneuvering. It fixed three central problems for Deng and Beijing: Soviet encirclement, Deng’s shaky position of power, and threats to Chinese regional hegemony. Moreover, it did so in a quick and efficient manner, effectively reversing China’s position overnight. As stated in the beginning of this essay, the Sino-Vietnamese War cannot be judged solely in terms of casualties, territory gain or loss, or even in the actual monetary cost of the war. Only in comparing the conditions that existed prior to and after the war is the full picture made clear.
Prior to the war, China was in a very weak position. With the Sino-Soviet split reaching the peak of its intensity, Beijing lacked any other large allies in its vicinity. In addition, a slowly forming Soviet “C-ring” of countries, with the capacity to encircle China, was gradually coalescing. Vietnam’s leadership, having recently defeated the United States, one of the great superpowers in the world at the time, in a moment of jubilation, felt empowered to reach for more; and for a moment, it seemed to the rest of the world that Hanoi’s assumption was correct. The era of Chinese dominance in southeast Asia had ended. Even within the party, after the death of Mao in 1976, party leadership was in shambles. Despite the relatively quick removal of the “Gang of Four,” Mao’s successor Hua lacked the bravado and finesse that had defined the Mao years in China. Arguments and infighting among top officials in the PLA and CCP elites took up valuable time. Without Mao’s strong hand to guide it, it seemed as if China was destined to collapse amidst a tightening Soviet ring and struggles amongst its top leaders.
By contrast, after the PLA invaded Vietnam, nearly all of the above problems were solved. For one, in breaking the perception of a strong Soviet-Vietnam alliance, Deng nullified the worries that China would face invasion from either north or southern borders. Breaking the perception that Soviet alliances (without a contiguous land border) were effective guarantors against invasion also isolated Vietnam in southeast Asia, preventing them from making any bold moves or actions for fear of Chinese retaliation. In beating down Vietnam, Beijing effectively eliminated any opposition to their position as a hegemon in southeast Asia. The war also prompted further parlance with the west, cementing China’s powerful position. Within the politburo, the war effectively demonstrated Deng’s strengths as both a foreign strategist and internal statesman, fully justifying his position as the de facto leader of China. Although even prior to the Sino-Vietnamese War Deng held a position that would allow him to access power, after the invasion, no one doubted Deng’s capabilities. In bringing Deng up, the war also pushed his competition, in this case Hua, down, thus preventing them from interfering with his new vision of China.
The ramifications of the new power vested in Deng hands were vast. For one, with this new power and new relationship with the west, Deng rapidly pushed for new free-market ideologies that would allow China to move past the economic slump of the 1950s and 1960s. Arguably more important than the modernizations that Deng brought was the ability to pursue higher education. The gaokao, or Chinese College Entrance Examination, re-opened in 1977, welcoming a new lot of students who felt, “proud and hardy, the first to enjoy higher education on the basis of merit since before the Cultural Revolution (Liang and Shapiro, 1984, p. 269).” Higher education brought with it the fruits of an expanded production possibilities frontier, made possible by the hundreds of college graduates that now flowed out of China’s universities. Mishra surmises that, had the Cultural Revolution not hampered higher education, the PRC would have been, “treasured [with] an army of scientists and technicians,” eager to, “realize the goals of the Four Modernizations (Mishra, 1988, p. 577).”
China’s war with Vietnam accomplished its purpose. Other countries, such as the United States and the Soviet Union would also try to use war to accomplish their own strategic goals, each with varying degrees of success. However, no other country would use war in the same way Deng had. In a way, Deng mastered the use of limited war under late twentieth century conditions. Although some may argue that limited war would only prove to be successful in the hyper specific conditions that China faced in the 1970s, the theory seems to be more versatile. For one, it keeps conflict confined in a region and in a time frame. Limited wars do not last longer than a given period and once that period is up, no matter what conditions prevail on the battlefield, an army practicing this theory must retreat. In this limited time frame, unnecessary loss of human life in a drawn-out stalemate is prevented. Furthermore, especially in a case where multiple powers are at play, it keeps other countries from intervening in order to tilt a war in the favor of one side. Theoretically, had China’s invasion of Vietnam lasted for multiple years, it may have garnered negative attention from outside forces.
The Sino-Vietnamese War remains as a peculiar example of war during a period of mutually assured destruction. Although, based on this analysis, the war was a success, the modern CCP still seems a bit unclear over its opinion on the war’s portrayal in Chinese media. In 2017, a Chinese film titled Youth, a portion of which covers the Sino-Vietnamese War, was pulled from theaters, only to be re-released three months later (Liang 2017). Despite most of the film being a love story, audience members seemed most interested in the 10-minute battle sequence of the film. As one university student notes, “I watched the trailer, which showed this battle, so I decided to buy a ticket, because this was the first time I’d heard about the Sino-Vietnamese war (Liang 2017).” As one veteran of the war comments, “My comrades and I think this part (about the Sino-Vietnamese War) was the only reason why it was praised by audiences (Liang 2017).”
It seems that, as a condition of it being so close to the Cultural Revolution, the Sino-Vietnamese War is lumped into the general “taboo period” of Chinese history that is omitted from many Chinese textbooks, contributing to the general ambiguity this time period holds for many younger Chinese. In 2019, the 40-year anniversary of the war, the Chinese government refused to hold any commemoration of the war for fear of inflaming relations with Vietnam (Elmer and Minie, 2019). Despite current censorship, as evidenced by this film’s re-release compared to other period films that were permanently censored, it seems like the CCP might be changing its mind over what legacy the Sino-Vietnamese War should leave on China. The war was a political move, and it demonstrated Deng’s skill as a decisionmaker. Despite lackluster military performance, the importance of the war should not be diminished. The war remains a key piece of Chinese history, essential to understanding the roots of the current Communist Party power structure, and how China consolidated and maintained its power during the turmoil of the Cold War.
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