The marginalized Chinese veterans of the little-celebrated Sino-Vietnamese War are risking beatings and jail time, by wading into battle aging, but this time against government officials.
Teng Xingqiu (滕興球) is one of thousands of former Chinese soldiers staging an increasing number of protests over unpaid benefits and unnerving the country’s authorities.
“The police told me they hoped I’d die in jail,” said Teng, whose activism resulted in him being sentenced to three years in jail in 2009.
A thin man who bears scars he says are the result of police violence, the 56-year-old Teng scanned the streets for surveillance cameras before choosing a run-down restaurant as a safe meeting spot.
Teng was posted to the China-Vietnam border area during the brief, but bloody war Beijing launched in 1979 to punish Hanoi for invading Cambodia and overthrowing genocidal Khmer Rouge leader Pol Pot, a Chinese ally.
“As Chinese citizens, of course we wanted to go to the front. A lot of my army friends were killed. Many members of my platoon were shot dead,” Teng said.
China reportedly acknowledges that it lost 6,954 soldiers in the conflict, but other estimates place its toll at more than 20,000, with higher figures for Vietnam.
No national memorial to the three-week and six-day-long war exists and Beijing rarely mentions it, even when denouncing Hanoi.
The war was “deadly and atrocious on the ground,” US historian Zhang Xiaoming (張小明) said.
“Ordinary Vietnamese worked in secret with the army, old men and women would even shoot at us, it was really terrifying,” Teng said.
Beijing declared victory and withdrew its troops less than a month after reaching an outpost near Hanoi, but Vietnam also claims victory, saying it repelled Chinese forces.
The US has produced hundreds of films and novels about its Vietnam War, but China’s experience there is rarely spoken about and first-hand accounts are heavily censored.
Around the time of the 1979 conflict, China began the landmark reform drive that partially replaced its state-planned economy with semi-free markets.
After serving in the People’s Liberation Army, Teng was assigned a job in a state-run firm, but was later laid off and could only find work as a trash collector.
Soldiers were “left behind” by the changing times, said Neil Diamant, a professor at Dickinson College in the US who has studied veteran activism, and now many are “living hand to mouth, with mounting medical expenses.”
China often vows aid for its veterans — estimated to number in the millions — but rules conflict and are poorly enforced.
Teng said he makes about 1,000 yuan (US$160) a month from odd jobs, but thinks the government should find him a salary matching the 2,800 yuan a month earned by the average worker in his hometown of Yiyang, Hunan Province.
Fed up with the situation, Teng and other former soldiers donned army uniforms and protested outside government offices in 2009, resulting in his being sentenced to three years in jail for “assembling to disturb order in a public place.”
Rights groups say China sees hundreds of such demonstrations each year, with more than 10,000 veterans reportedly demonstrating across 11 provinces late last month.
Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) has in the past year vowed to cut army personnel as part of sweeping military reforms aimed at creating an army oriented toward sea and air combat, raising the possibility of further veteran unrest.