Six decades after treating traumatized Chinese soldiers from the battlefields of Korea, psychiatrist Xue Chongcheng remains convinced their sacrifices — which forged bonds between Beijing and Pyongyang in blood and fire — were essential.
But the ties are tarnishing under the passage of time and generational change, with China rising to the forefront of global economics and geopolitics while frustration grows with a frequently troublesome nuclear neighbor, say analysts and ordinary Chinese.
China sent hundreds of thousands of soldiers to the Korean peninsula, the infamous “human waves” that turned the tide early in the 1950-53 conflict, sending UN forces led by American General Douglas MacArthur retreating southward after they had pushed invading North Korean troops almost back to the Chinese border.
The total number of Chinese deaths remains a point of contention among historians. Western estimates commonly cite a figure of 400,000, while Chinese sources appear to have settled in recent years on a toll of about 180,000.
Whatever the true figure the war, which ended in a truce signed on July 27, 1953, has for decades had a special place in modern Chinese history and identity.
It began less than 12 months after Mao Zedong (毛澤東) and the Communist Party finally won China’s cataclysmic civil war and established their People’s Republic in 1949.
Mao’s eldest son, Mao Anying (毛岸英), died fighting on the Korean peninsula and is a symbol of China-North Korea ties, once frequently described as being “as close as lips and teeth.”
Xue, a retired psychiatrist who turns 94 in August, vividly recalls the mental condition of the countless soldiers he treated in a hospital in the northeastern Chinese city of Changchun, about 270km from North Korea, where they were brought from the front for treatment.
“These young people were all volunteers and full of patriotic fervor,” the white-haired and bushy-browed Xue told AFP in his apartment in a quiet, leafy compound in Beijing, magnifying glass constantly in hand.
“But repeatedly undergoing the fire of war tested them and they became mentally ill,” he said, sitting next to a bookshelf packed with medical texts and dictionaries, some in English.
“They were always in a fighting state of mind. In the hospital ward they would shout out slogans: ‘Charge, kill, down with the American imperialists, defend the nation,’” he said.
“They urgently wanted to return to the front and join the fight.”
Xue, who offers an impromptu rendition of a song about Chinese troops going to fight in the North, emphasizes the war’s importance for Beijing, saying defeat for Pyongyang would have put China’s Communist government in the crosshairs of the US.
“I think sending soldiers to North Korea was the right choice to defend the nation,” he added. “It was a just war.”
In China, it is officially known as the “War to Resist US Aggression and Aid Korea”. The idea that Beijing was right to defend its Communist ally and protect its own national interests at the time against a threatening and atomic-armed US remains commonplace.
But patience with Pyongyang and its nuclear saber-rattling has been showing signs of running out.
China’s new President Xi Jinping (習近平), born a month before the armistice ending hostilities was signed, issued a rare if indirect public rebuke to North Korea during a speech to visiting international political and business leaders in April.
Xi said there should be no tolerance for those that foster “chaos for selfish gains”, wording widely seen at the time as criticizing Pyongyang without mentioning it by name.
His comments came during months of provocations by North Korea, including a rocket launch seen as a disguised missile test, an atomic blast and threats of nuclear conflagration, and as the US and South Korea carried out joint war games.
“It’s definitely eroding,” Adam Cathcart, an expert on China-North Korea relations at Queen’s University Belfast, said of support among Chinese for Pyongyang.
At the Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution in Beijing last week, visiting truck driver Pan Yude said China paid a high and worthwhile cost to defend its neighbor.
But his attitude hardened when asked about the North Korea of today, describing relations with Pyongyang as merely “so-so” and blaming what he sees as North Korean stubbornness.
“It can’t adapt to the trend of world historical development,” he said. “Up to now, its people are still going hungry and its leaders are militaristic and aggressive,” he added, standing in front of a display of tanks on the museum grounds, including US Sherman and Pershing vehicles captured during the conflict.
“To tell the truth, if Russia and China didn’t support it, the country would have quickly ceased to exist.”
Cathcart says factors behind the changing attitudes include the passing of the war generation, North Korea’s reluctance to publicly acknowledge China’s sacrifices, and Chinese authorities giving historians and commentators freer rein to examine past assumptions.
“There’s definitely a revision going on within China, whereas North Korea has really stuck to their narrative. And they have really said Kim Il-sung is the main man, it’s really about his genius,” he said, referring to the North’s founder and grandfather of current leader Kim Jong-un.
“And the Chinese think that’s ludicrous.”