Thursday, 12 July 2012

Slow Bloke To China: 9. Sino-Vietnamese War, Cannibals And The Camera Catches The Spirit

These are examples of how different times were in China in 1979. The Sino-Vietnamese War had just been concluded with both sides claiming a victory. It was a brief and bloody war, starting with the Chinese wanting to teach the Vietnamese a lesson as a response to Vietnam's invasion and occupation of Cambodia which resulted in the end of the tenure of Chinese backed Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge.

I was ignorant of the severity of this war. The casualties were impossible to record accurately, but a reasonable estimate was about 40,000-60,000 Chinese and 10,000-20,000 Vietnamese with as high as 10,000 civilians.  Though the Chinese had numerical superiority, in one respect they got a bloody nose from the Vietnamese border militias who operated guerrilla tactics, never committing their regular army, which was lying in wait defending Hanoi. The Chinese said that they had destroyed all Vietnamese resistance.

Hence face was saved on both sides. But when the PRC army returned to China, it operated a scorched earth policy and destroyed everything in its path. Every village we visited seemed to have photos of soldiers and airmen who had perished. Our guides took some of us aside when we were not looking and explained the war from a non-propagandist Red China outlook. It seemed to have wounded the Chinese psyche and hurt their pride. Not because of the numbers - 30,000-40,000 was nothing when you were a nation made up of billions. But there was a loss of confidence and the Maoist doctrine of invulnerabliity which had been preached had been questioned by an inferior race.

The communes had huge areas for drying rice. The scale of everything in China was huge.

Yet at the same time, there was peace. On every street corner, there were people on bikes or on the pavement talking, eating or playing chess or some card game. It was difficult taking photos, not only because I had a Kodak Instamatic, but some people were afraid or angry at having their photograph taken.

'Some still believe your camera will capture their spirit and it will never be given back,' said a guide. 'But don't worry, because where we are going next, there has been talk of a village close by where cannibalism still exists.'

The bus was unusually quiet on the return journey.

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