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    Southeast Asia
     Apr 26, 2007
Page 2 of 2
Why Vietnam loves and hates China
By Andrew Forbes

and yet had wantonly rejected this privilege. In view of this close association - Yongle used the term mi mi or "intimately related" - Vietnam's rebellion was particularly heinous and deserved the fiercest of punishments.

China on top
Sometimes a strongly sexual imagery creeps into this "intimate relationship", with Vietnam, the weaker partner, a victim of

Chinese violation. In AD 248, the Vietnamese heroine Lady Triu, who led a popular uprising against the Chinese occupation, proclaimed: "I want to ride the great winds, strike the sharks on the high seas, drive out the invaders, reconquer the nation, burst the bonds of slavery and never bow to become anyone's concubine."

Her defiant choice of words was more than just symbolic. Vietnam has long been a source of women for the Chinese sex trade. In Tang times, the Chinese poet Yuan Chen wrote appreciatively of "slave girls of Viet, sleek, of buttery flesh", while today the booming market for Vietnamese women in Taiwan infuriates and humiliates many Vietnamese men.

It's instructive, then, that in his 1987 novel Fired Gold Vietnamese author Nguyen Huy Thiep writes, "The most significant characteristics of this country are its smallness and weakness. She is like a virgin girl raped by Chinese civilization. The girl concurrently enjoys, despises and is humiliated by the rape."

This Chinese belief that Vietnam is not just another nation, but rather a member of the family - almost Chinese, aware of the blessings of Chinese civilization, but somehow stubbornly refusing, century after century, to become Chinese - has persisted down to the present day.

During the Second Indochina War, Chinese propaganda stressed that Vietnam and China were "as close as the lips and the teeth". After the US defeat, however, Vietnam once again showed its independence, allying itself with the Soviet Union, in 1978-79, invading neighboring Cambodia and overthrowing China's main ally in Southeast Asia, the Khmer Rouge.

Once again Chinese fury knew no bounds, and Beijing determined to teach the "ungrateful" Vietnamese a lesson. Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, openly denounced the Vietnamese as "the hooligans of the East". According to one Thai diplomat: "The moment the topic of Vietnam came up, you could see something change in Deng Xiaoping.

"His hatred was just visceral. He spat forcefully into his spittoon and called the Vietnamese 'dogs'." Acting on Deng's orders, the Chinese army invaded Vietnam in 1979, capturing five northern provincial capitals before systematically demolishing them and withdrawing to China after administering a symbolic "lesson".

But who taught a lesson to whom? Beijing sought to force Hanoi to withdraw its frontline forces from Cambodia, but the Vietnamese didn't engage these forces in the struggle, choosing instead to confront the Chinese with irregulars and provincial militia. Casualties were about equal, and China lost considerable face, as well as international respect, as a result of its invasion.

Over the millennia, actions like this have taught the Vietnamese a recurring lesson about China. It's there, it's big, and it won't go away, so appease it without yielding whenever possible, and fight it with every resource available whenever necessary.

Just as Chinese rulers have seen the Vietnamese as ingrates and hooligans, so the Vietnamese have seen the Chinese as arrogant and aggressive, a power to be emulated at all times, mollified in times of peace, and fiercely resisted in times of war.

In 1946, 1,700 years after Lady Triu's declaration, another great Vietnamese patriot, Ho Chi Minh, warned his Viet Minh colleagues in forceful terms against using Chinese Nationalist troops in the north as a buffer against the return of the French: "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."

Yet Ho was an ardent admirer of Chinese civilization, fluent in Mandarin, a skilled calligrapher who wrote Chinese poetry, a close friend and colleague of Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Ho wasn't as much anti-Chinese as he was pro-Vietnamese. It was his deep understanding of and respect for China that enabled him to recognize, clearly and definitively, the menace that "a close family relationship" with the giant to the north posed, and continues to pose, for Vietnam's independence and freedom.

It's ironic, then, that as the current Vietnamese leadership strive to develop their economy along increasingly capitalist lines while at the same time retaining their monopoly on state power, the country they most admire and seek to emulate is, as always, the one they most fear.

Andrew Forbes is editor of CPA Media as well as a correspondent in its Thailand bureau. He has recently completed National Geographic Traveler: Shanghai , and the above is an excerpt from his forthcoming book A Phoenix Reborn: Travels in New Vietnam.

(Copyright 2007 Andrew Forbes.)

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