Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Transformation of Sino-Vietnamese Relations: a local perspective

The Friendship Pass (“Youyi Guan” in Chinese, “Huu Nghi Quan” in Vietnamese) located at Pingxiang County of Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region is the historical gateway between Southwestern China and northern Vietnam. Over the last five hundred years, transformation of the gate’s names symbolized changes in Chinese perception of its southern neighbor, who was the junior actor in the asymmetric relations. Preparing for military campaign against Vietnam, the Ming government under the reign of Yongle Emperor named the gate Barbarian Suppressing Pass (Zhen Yi Guan) in 1407. Forced to recognize Vietnamese autonomy after the failed attempt of direct rule, Beijing changed the name into South Suppressing Pass (Zhen Nan Guan) in 1428. In 1953, at the height of the First Indochina War, the Chinese Communist government renamed the crossing with a less aggressive yet still Sino-centric term South Pacifying Gate (Mu Nan Guan). This gateway and Pingxiang County also became important locations for China’s organization and transportation of aid to Vietnam. Twelve years later Beijing gave the historical site its present name Friendship Pass at the onset of the American ground war in Vietnam. Ironically, during the Third Indochina War, the Friendship Pass and Pingxiang were transformed into heavily guarded and mined outposts of confrontation between the two countries. The renaming of the pass, the expansion of state control into this southwestern far corner of territory, and the transformation of Pingxiang society provided a window to understand the local dynamics of Sino-Vietnamese relations.

(Gate of the Friendship Pass. Photo taken by the author on June 15 2014)

(Zhen Guan Battery built on the mountain top beside the Friendship Pass. Photo taken by the author on June 15 2014)

(Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai and President of Democratic Republic of China Ho Chi Minh met in this chamber in the Friendship Pass on April 9 1961. Photo taken by the author on June 15 2014)

On the way to the Friendship Pass, I shared a taxi with a Cantonese businessman who was going to Vietnam through the Friendship Border Custom. Originally from Shenzhen, he had been doing business in Vietnam for seven years. The emerging tension between China and Vietnam did not dampen his confidence in the profitability of importing sandalwood from Vietnam. Sandalwood is one of the most important commodities in the bilateral trade and processing sandalwood furniture is the pillar industry of Pingxiang. Sandalwood is considered the best material to produce traditional style furniture, whose demand increases significantly with the growing number of new rich. Vietnamese government’s restriction on sandalwood export also enhances the price of sandalwood related products on Chinese market.
Tourism also contributes significantly to local economy. Typically, people traveling by car or train visit the Friendship Pass en route to Vietnam. In comparison with trade, tourism to the Friendship Pass declines as a result of dropping tourists from China to Vietnam this year. Tourists to the Friendship Pass declined by one third in this peak season according to the taxi driver who took us to the Friendship Pass. Another important source of visitors is veteran and family members of the deceased soldiers of the Third Indochina War. Because several heavy battles of the war took place near Pingxiang, cemeteries started to be built in 1979 near the battlefields. In 1880s, disperse cemeteries were combined into three larger ones. Since then, cemeteries became conspicuous landscape in Pingxiang. I visited Jiangzhi Cemetery, which is the nearest to the town, with a war veteran. Burned incense and marks of liquor on the ground indicated that the cemetery is regularly visited. According to the veteran, in the recent decade, increasing number of veterans can afford a trip to Guangxi. Some of the wealthier veterans such as those from Canton are enthusiastic in sponsoring group visit to Pingxiang. During the anniversaries of the war or battles and Ancestors’ Day Holiday (“Qingming Festival”) each year, Pingxiang become crowded with veterans and family members of the deceased soldiers.
After 1991, the restoration and boom of border trade between the two sides attracted considerable number of migrant workers and businessmen to this border town. According to statistics of 2013, around 70,000 among 180,000 residents of Pingxiang are originally from the outside. Along with this demographical change was shift of language. While local dialects dominate daily conversation in most other underdeveloped area in Guangxi, mandarin Chinese is the most widely used language in Pingxiang due to the influx of businessmen over the past two decades.

During the trip, I can feel strongly the implication of Sino-Vietnamese relations to the border area. During the peace time, Pingxiang benefited from the cross-border trade and mobility. Because war left more marks on border area than elsewhere, local government is more dedicated than higher authority in commemorating the war. 

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