Webinar on “The Politics of Memory: The Commemoration of Sino-Vietnamese Conflicts in Vietnam”

In this webinar, Dr Martin Grossheim discussed how Vietnam has been commemorating Sino-Vietnamese armed conflicts since the early 1990s and explained Hanoi’s changing attitude towards the history of these conflicts.


Thursday, 17 February 2022 – ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute hosted a webinar on “The Politics of Memory: The Commemoration of Sino-Vietnamese Conflicts in Vietnam” presented by Dr Martin Grossheim, Associate Professor of Vietnamese history at Seoul National University.

Dr Grossheim explained how Hanoi has been using historical memories to shape its domestic narratives about Vietnam – China relations. Dr Le Hong Hiep moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

On 17 February 1979, China launched an invasion into Vietnam. According to Dr Grossheim, what prompted China’s action was Vietnam’s strategic alignment with the Soviet Union after the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, which Beijing perceived as a threat. He stressed that even though Chinese troops withdrew on 16 March 1979, the war lasted until 1989. The second stage of the conflict took place mainly in Vi Xuyen District of Ha Giang Province (formerly Ha Tuyen Province) in northern Vietnam from 1984 to 1989.

During the Vietnam War, the bilateral relationship between Vietnam and China was described as “close as lips and teeth.” However, their ties reached a low ebb following the 1979 conflict. Dr Grossheim pointed out that after the Chinese invasion, the Vietnamese propaganda apparatus began to portray China as a chauvinist expansionist power that had been undermining Vietnam’s interests since the first Indochina War.

In the early 1990s, Vietnam’s official commemoration of the 1979 war shifted as the country sought to re-establish diplomatic relations with its northern neighbour. Dr Grossheim observed that the Vietnamese state systematically silenced the commemoration of the war against China following bilateral normalisation in 1991. He cited state media’s lack of acknowledgement of the war, the censoring of journalists who wrote about the event, and inadequate coverage of the topic in Vietnamese history textbooks.

The almost absence of the 1979 war in Vietnam’s official national memory project ended with a turning point in 2014 when China placed the Haiyang Shiyou 981 oil rig in Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone. The incident led to the worst diplomatic crisis between Hanoi and Beijing since 1979, prompting anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam. It also resulted in the Vietnamese public’s and the media’s greater interest in past armed clashes between the two countries.

In response, the Vietnamese government started to allow the commemoration of the Battle of the Paracel Islands (1974) and the Johnson South Reef Skirmish (1988) between Vietnamese and Chinese navies. Dr Grossheim explained that the move aimed to bolster Hanoi’s claims in the South China Sea dispute. Since 2014, there has also been a more pronounced commemoration of the 1979 war, including the battle of Vi Xuyen, in the Vietnamese press.

Dr Grossheim underlined another important reason why the battle of Vi Xuyen has been increasingly commemorated: activities by Vietnamese veterans who fought against China from 1979 to 1989. These veterans were dissatisfied with the Vietnamese state’s neglect of the deaths in the war, the lack of a proper memorial site for their fallen comrades, and the fact that the remains of many of their fellow soldiers had not been identified. Thus, following the turning point in 2014, they advocated for more significant efforts to commemorate the war and honor the deaths of the soldiers who fought alongside them three decades earlier. In 2016, the veterans established the “Nationwide Liaison Committee of the Veterans of the Battle of Vi Xuyen – Ha Tuyen” and inaugurated a memorial site, the construction of which they financed.

Since the 40th anniversary of the 1979 war in 2019, the Vietnamese authorities have upgraded their commemoration of the event. However, Dr Grossheim noted that the Vietnamese “memory machine” still tries to keep the commemoration low-profile by systematically avoiding labelling China as the aggressor. For example, the word “China” could not be found anywhere in the exhibition on Sino-Vietnamese conflicts at the Vietnam Military History Museum in Hanoi. Another case in point is that a national academic conference in 2019 to commemorate the 1979 Chinese invasion was titled “The Struggle to Defend the Northern Border of the Country: Looking Back after 40 Years.”

The Vietnamese press tends to overlook how the war against China almost fell into oblivion following Vietnam’s diplomatic normalization with China, claiming that the state has never forgotten the fallen soldiers. “Vietnamese veterans, however, know better,” said Dr Grossheim.

In the Q&A session, Dr Grossheim answered questions about the public’s attitude toward the 1979 war, the organization of Vi Xuyen veterans, the avoidance of the term “China” in Vietnam’s official commemorations, and commemoration of the war in China, among other topics.

155 participants attended the webinar.  (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)