War Veteran: Eleven Secrets From the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War

April 9, 2012 Updated: April 11, 2012

As the Qingming Festival, also known as tomb-sweeping day, drew near, a veteran who fought in the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War disclosed on bbs.tianya.cn eleven unpublished facts and opinions about what he experienced during the war. 

He claims to be a newspaper editor who became a soldier when he was 16. He was wounded and disabled by the time he was 19. He said that he has been lobbying and appealing for legal rights for disabled soldiers over the past several years. 

The veteran said that he wanted to talk about his experiences during the war because he didn’t find that current articles about the war were authentic enough and he wanted to set the record straight. He also admitted that he was not an expert on the war and wanted merely to share his experiences and feelings. Following is a summary of what he wrote.

The Narrative of the Grieved Veteran

1. The reason the war started has never been explained in an open, authoritative, or convincing way. The then Director of the General Staff and Operations Department, Zhang Sheng, states in his books “Coming out of the War” and “The Last Secret Agent in China” that not even the then-Minister of Defense knew why the authorities felt the need to launch the war.

2. Although China had absolute advantage in the number of troops and firepower, the goal of eliminating the two most powerful Vietnamese divisions 316A and 316B was not reached. 

3. Advanced equipment was for decoration only. Back then, China had modern airplanes, tanks, and missiles but the commander was not familiar with combined operations and hence the equipment wasn’t used as effectively as it could have been. For example, when a blockade could be accomplished using an airplane, an infantry regiment was sent instead.

4. Terrible logistical support. The veteran said he was injured on February 19, 1979, but didn’t receive medical attention until February 27. He had only a sulfonamide antibiotic pill so the wound festered and eventually one of his toes had to be removed. Many soldiers went to war without basic first aid training. They didn’t know how to stop bleeding and hence some soldiers bled to death from not-so-severe wounds after being hit by landmines. 

5. No strategy on how to mount an attack. When the war started, our troops walked into the battlefields like it was a military parade. I remember looking out and seeing our troops visible all over the mountains and plains. I was very angry and told the chief of staff, “Even a boy scout leader from a village could do a better job of commanding.” Our enemy could easily launch mass attacks at us, and cause huge casualties.

6. No control over light artillery and limited use of heavy artillery. There was so much control on the heavy artillery, such as 152 mm and 130 mm guns, that approval by the General Staff Department had to be obtained before use. Nonetheless, the number of soldiers ordered to charge the enemy lines was not limited. 

7. Non-stop incidents of self-mutilation. To avoid going to war, some of the soldiers in Vietnam shot their own legs.

8. Compensation for wounded soldiers harkened back to Civil War time. The policies were completely outmoded. After I was injured, they only gave me 15 yuan (less than US $1.80), which is the standard of Huaihai Battle (1948-1949). It’s 1/100,000 of the U.S. and U.K. standard during that same period. I don’t think the difference in GDP between developed countries and China was that large back then.

9. Compensation for the death of a soldier equaled the price of a pig. For any soldier who died during the war, 300 yuan (US $37.50, using the 1980 exchange rate) was paid to the bereaved family.

10. The soldiers discharged because of injury live a miserable life. The first 10 years after I left the military, I only received 30 yuan (US $3.75, 1980 exchange rate), every year as compensation. In 2010, 31 years after I was injured, I received consolation gifts from the government worth US$47. That night, I was looking at the gifts and drinking by myself. While drinking, I started to cry. It’s been more than 30 years! Many of us veterans still don’t own a house or have a wife. 

11. Books that document facts about the war are not allowed to be published. In 2010 I wrote “The Diary of A Wounded Soldier in the Vietnam War” based on my experiences as a soldier. The book was posted online and became a national hit, but I was told that it couldn’t be published. Books about the Vietnam War could not be so direct or blunt. The war could only be referred to as “the regional military conflict in the South.” A war in which several hundreds of thousands of soldiers shed blood or died could not be described truthfully. Then who will fight for you in the future? 

Questions and Responses from Netizens

The 11 issues revealed by the Vietnamese War veteran apparently resonated with netizens. Commenting about the cause of the war, one person wrote, “Internationally, the so called ‘war of self-defense,’ which caused tens of thousands of casualties, occurred to save the CCP’s little brother, the Khmer Rouge of Cambodia; domestically, it occurred so Deng Xiaoping could grab military power and consolidate his dictatorship.”

Another netizen said, “Is this country worth your life? You put your life out there for them but they don’t acknowledge you. Your life is only worth the price of a pig. And you can only complain online. If you are not careful, you will be ‘harmonized’ or the police from faraway provinces have the right to track you down and arrest you.” (The word “harmonized” in this context is a sarcastic reference to censorship.)

One response in the forum reflected on the apparent consistent failure in the Communist Party’s foreign relations initiatives: “Why is it that China is giving financial aid to many countries, but still lacks supporters? Chinese people wonder why we aren’t befriended by the countries we help, especially when our own country is not so strong, our own people are not so rich, and we suffer poverty so we can help them? In order to give the best to our friends, Chinese people have to live a poorer life. However, this resulted in our friends turning into enemies. For example, we supported Vietnam without asking to be paid back, but ended up at war with them; we have supplied North Korea with oil and food, but found that it’s like ‘throwing money into a bottomless pit.’ When we helped Mongolia with construction, they threw our Chinese workers into jail; we have helped African countries to build factories, and they blame China for giving them outdated equipment. These countries and their people don’t have any positive feelings toward China. The sacrifices and contributions that China has made somehow don’t result in friendship. Could it be that Chinese people are the biggest fools in the world?”

Read the original Chinese article