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China and Vietnam: Thoughts From a Chinese Sojourner in Ho Chi Minh City

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China and Vietnam: Thoughts From a Chinese Sojourner in Ho Chi Minh City

Different interpretations of history showcase hidden tensions in the China-Vietnam relationship.

China and Vietnam: Thoughts From a Chinese Sojourner in Ho Chi Minh City
Credit: Wikimedia Commons/ Thai Silver

In early February, I paid my second visit to Ho Chi Minh city, Vietnam. Unlike my first visit, which was four years ago, this time I decided to spend much of the five days exploring the various museums in the city. It was the dry season in Vietnam, and the museums would provide a pleasant shelter from the sizzling heat in the streets. Also, my son was only four years old during my first visit, and I thought four years later he was old enough to learn from the museums a little bit about the history and culture of a country he has visited twice.

Most importantly, as a Chinese political scientist, I was hoping that these museums would help me to find out how Vietnam views its relations with China. Given the critical role of museums — along with maps and censuses — in the formation of national identities, as discussed in great length by Benedict Anderson in his widely acclaimed The Imagined Community, I was certain that the Vietnamese government’s narrative on the bilateral relationship would be different from that of the Chinese government, but I didn’t know how exactly they would differ from each other.

In the morning of my second day, I went to the War Remnants Museum. I had heard from those who had been to the museum that it is dedicated solely to the war between Vietnam and the United States. Also I had known that China provided a massive amount of aid to the Vietnamese people during the Vietnam War, though Beijing has never disclosed the exact numbers. One Chinese sources estimated the amount to be roughly $20 billion (calculated on the basis of prices in the 1970s), which is worth about 5 trillion RMB today. Additionally, Beijing sent more than 300,000 military personnel across the border between 1965 and 1968, according to another source. Thus before arriving at the museum, I had the expectation that at least one or two exhibits in the museum would gratefully acknowledge China’s generous assistance to Vietnam.

The ground floor of the museum is a collection of photos and posters. The photos document anti-war rallies, demonstrations, and protests across the world (including in the United States), while the posters use words and pictures to convey international support for Vietnam and opposition to the United States. Toward the end of the collection I came upon three photos. The first showed Mao Zedong shaking hands with Ho Chi Minh. In the second photo two balloons with long banners — one read “long live Chairman Mao” and the other “long live Chairman Ho” — were floating above the Tiananmen Square in Beijing, which was packed with crowds. The third depicted Mao receiving a visiting Vietnamese delegation. It turned out that these three photos were the only exhibits in the three-story museum that suggested Vietnamese acknowledgement of and gratitude for Chinese assistance during the Vietnam War.

In the afternoon of the fourth day, I traveled to the History Museum. After quickly going through the first two exhibits, which featured traditional artifacts and dresses, I found myself at the entrance to the third exhibit. At the top of the entrance was a placard that read “Chinese Occupation — The Struggle for Independence.” The third exhibit consisted of two dozen or so posters and replicated maps. I was particularly fascinated by one poster, which reads as follows (verbatim):

“After the defeat of King An Duong in the resistance against Trieu Da (179 B.C.), Vietnam was ruled, exploited and assimilated by Chinese feudal groups. During more 1,000 years, Vietnamese people struggled firmly to preserve cultural tradition, national language, received and vietnamized elements of Han culture; rose simultaneously in more 100 rebellions against aggressors in order to get sovereignty with the first revolt of two Trung sisters (40-43 A.D.). In 938, Ngo Quyen expelled completely the Chinese aggressor on the historical Bach Dang river, began the era of the freedom and independence for Vietnamese people.”

The poster was followed by a series of replicated maps, which indicated not only the routes of successive “Chinese aggression,” but also the locations of Vietnamese resistance against such aggression. One map depicted the “typical revolts against the northern aggressors (1st-10th century).” Another portrayed the “victory of Dai Viet army against Song aggressors (1076-1077).” A third map showed the “Lam Son insurrection (1418-1427).” By the time I walked out of the entrance, I had gained a clear sense of how China was — and probably still is — viewed by its neighbor to the south.

Back at my hotel room in the evening, I was trying to make sense of what I saw in the History Museum. I happened to have with me a copy of the 2014 Lonely Planet travel book on Vietnam, so I began to read the brief introduction on Vietnam’s history. Then I came across a section headlined “China Bites Back,” which reads as follows:

“The Chinese took control of Vietnam again in the early 15th century, taking the national archives and some of the country’s intellectuals back to Nanjing [the capital of Ming dynasty] — a loss that was to have lasting impact on Vietnamese civilization. Heavy taxation and slave labor were also typical of the era. The poet Nguyen Trai (1380-1442) wrote of this period: ‘Were the waters of the Eastern Sea to be exhausted, the stains of their ignominy could not be washed away; all the bamboo of the Southern Mountains would not suffice to provide the paper for recording all their crimes.’”

To be honest, I was not prepared at all for such a poem. Indeed, for me, it could have easily passed as a poem that denounces the Japanese invasion of China had the author of the poem not been identified. I was truly shocked by the intensity of resentment in between the lines. To be sure, I was fully aware that the two countries have had a troubled relationship since the late 1970s: a border clash in 1979, naval skirmishes in the South China Sea in the early 1980s, and tensions over disputed islands in the South China Sea since 2010. But I didn’t know that Vietnamese animosity toward China runs so deep and powerful. Just as “a century of humiliation” has become an integral part of the Chinese collective memory, so has “one thousand years of Chinese rule” evolved to be a core component of the Vietnamese national identity, regardless of the Chinese memory or whether the Vietnamese identity is spontaneous or manufactured.

Putting aside the Lonely Planet book, I tried to make sense of Vietnam-China relations. All of a sudden I remembered a quote widely attributed to Ho Chi Minh, the father of modern Vietnam. Ho reportedly made the following remarks in 1946, shortly after he agreed to allow French troops to return to Vietnam.

“You fools! Don’t you realize what it means if the Chinese remain? Don’t you remember your history? The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.”

Ho’s quick forgiveness of the French colonists goes a long way toward explaining the Vietnamese people’s apparent magnanimity toward Americans. One exhibit in the War Remnants Museum says 3 million Vietnamese were killed (among them 2 million civilians), 2 million injured, plus 300,000 missing in the war with the United States. On top of this horrible loss of human life is the enormous harm to both the local environment and residents caused by Agent Orange. It is likely that the ignominies and crimes committed by Americans about ten years are much worse than those inflicted by China over more than a thousand years. Yet the Vietnamese seem to have quickly gotten over American atrocities.

What can the past tell us about the future of Vietnam-China relations? One lesson seems to be in order: The centrifugal forces of nationalism are far more powerful than the centripetal forces of communism. Just as Mao eventually broke with Stalin, so did Ho eventually turn his back against Mao. Scratch a communist, and you will find a nationalist not far under the surface. As long as memories about “a thousand years of Chinese rule” remain fresh in the Vietnamese collective consciousness, Beijing’s promise of peaceful rise will ring hollow, and ongoing tensions in the South China Sea will only make that promise even hollower. Hanoi will continue to seek support from third parties in order to prepare itself for an unpeaceful rise of China.

With these thoughts, I am getting ready for my next stop: Yangon, Myanmar.