By late 1979, Vietnam’s fighting forces could be forgiven for hubris.

In a matter of decades, they had thrown off French colonialism, defeated American troops, unified the country’s north and south, overthrew the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, foiled an anti-communist insurgency in Laos and, finally, defeated a Chinese border incursion in just three weeks.

This February 7 marked the 40th anniversary of the 1979 Vietnam-China border war, a short but fierce struggle that took the lives of tens of thousands of Vietnamese and Chinese soldiers, although the exact number of casualties is contested by both sides.

Armed border spats recurred throughout the 1980s, including a naval battle over a contested reef in the South China Sea, until the two sides formally ended tensions and restored full diplomatic relations in 1991.

The 1979 border war has since been a taboo subject in Vietnam. While commemorative statues and monuments dot the countryside, state media and ruling Communist Party officials have traditionally played down the conflict’s anniversary, paying only lip service to those who perished in the fighting.

The reasons behind the silence are as political as they are economic. China, while still a bête noire for much of the Vietnamese public, is Hanoi’s second-largest trading partner, trailing only the US.

The two sides’ common communist links have also militated against jingoistic flag-waving on the anniversary, as has a mutual desire not to re-open a historical debate over who was the aggressor and who the victor.

A Vietnamese artillery unit resists Chinese invaders along the 230-kilometer border line of the province Lang Son with China, February 23, 1979. Photo: AFP

That is, until now. Vietnamese authorities openly marked this year’s anniversary by allowing several state-run newspapers to publish in-depth and critical features about the war and its veterans.

Voice of Vietnam, a Communist Party mouthpiece, published at least a dozen articles last week documenting memories of veterans and analysis of what the war means to Vietnam today. One article even called the war a “righteous…struggle to defend the Fatherland.” Another described it as “China’s brutal and illogical invasion.”

The Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, a government department, also held a day-long conference where academics and historians were invited to present papers on the subject.

“After decades keeping silent or being kept silent, it was the first time the state media had a chance to cover stories about such period of time in our history,” said Nguyen Chi Tuyen, a prominent human rights activist who goes by the online name Anh Chi. “Some called China our enemy, but others used vague terms like ‘opponents’ from the ‘other side of the border,’” he added.

State-run newspapers were keen to stress that it was a “tragic historic event,” as one article put it, and that Vietnam and China should learn from it to strengthen their relations. And despite the relative honesty, especially compared to previous years, certain topics still remained off-limits.

For instance, there was no mention of the disputed death tolls. The Vietnamese government, backed by some historians, have long claimed that fewer of its soldiers were killed than China’s, though this is contentious.

Neither was there any mention of the role some of Vietnam’s ethnic minority groups played in supporting Chinese forces, a controversial issue considering many of those same groups remain disenfranchised and impoverished today. Nor was there any talk about the Soviet Union’s role in supporting Vietnam against China, which raises questions about the present day government’s effusion for socialist comradeship.

A Chinese war veteran visits the Chinese military’s ‘Martyr’s Cemetery’ for the 1979 war with Vietnam at the border town of Malipo. Photo: AFP/Mark Ralston

The moderate shift in the conflict’s official treatment comes during a period of strained relations, particularly over China’s expansionism and militarization of contested features in the South China Sea.

Indeed, some see certain parallels in today’s sea tensions and the 1979 border war. Beijing’s motivation for its border attack, it said at the time, was to “teach” an “ungrateful” Vietnam a lesson after it helped to oust Cambodia’s China-backed Khmer Rouge regime through an invasion of Phnom Penh.

Vietnamese troops remained in Cambodia until the late 1980s, while China supported Khmer Rouge rebels who retreated to the country’s remote western region, in what became a sort of decade-long China-Vietnam proxy war.

But while Vietnam’s tightly controlled state media was allowed to reflect this year on the border war, it wasn’t a privilege afforded to ordinary citizens.

Tuyen says that he traveled to a commemoration site in Hanoi on Sunday to light incense and mark the anniversary but was quickly accosted by police. After being spirited away in a sports utility vehicle and held incommunicado for several hours in a far-flung police station, he was released and allowed to return home.

A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures during an anti-China protest in front of the Opera House in Hanoi in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang
A policeman blocks photographers from taking pictures at an anti-China protest in front of Hanoi’s Opera House in a file photo. Photo: Reuters/Nguyen Lan Thang

“They told me that I must stay at home or do something else, but not go out to commemorate – the thing was secretly forbidden on that day,” Tuyen told Asia Times.

His harassment speaks to the ruling Communist Party’s firm intent to dictate how the conflict’s anniversary is remembered and commemorated, not the general public. That’s because anti-China protests in Vietnam, held for various reasons in recent years, often quickly morph into anti-government protests mobilized around the notion the Party has sold out national interests to Beijing.

As a result, the Communist Party often appears unsure how to respond. It certainly doesn’t like to see its citizens voicing their opinions in public, but neither does it want to appear to be supporting China or doing Beijing’s bidding, something its critics regularly accuse.

At the same time, memories of the American War, as it is referred to locally, evoke comparatively few angry feelings towards the US these days. This is largely due to the fact that antagonisms against China date back centuries, while those against the US started in the 1950s. Moreover, American culture, including cinema and music, is popular with wide swathes of the Vietnamese public.

Washington and Hanoi’s diplomatic relations have arguably never been better. When Donald Trump arrives in Hanoi later this month to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, it will mark his second visit to Vietnam since becoming president in 2016.

Then US Defense Secretary James Mattis visited Vietnam twice last year, while last March the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier became the first US military vessel to dock in Vietnam since the 1970s, a sign of America’s support for Vietnam’s resistance to China’s ambitions in the South China Sea.

But while Vietnam leans heavily towards the US in the broad US-China competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific, communist officials in Hanoi still often play coy to avoid irking Beijing.

Nguyen Phu Trong, the Communist Party’s General Secretary and State President, has visited Beijing on several occasions in recent years, each time vowing to strengthen their relations. Defense Minister General Ngo Xuan Lich visited Beijing last October and said he wanted Vietnam and China to improve their defense relations.

“China is our neighbor and our friend,” said Prime Minister Nguyen Xuan Phuc in January, adding that Vietnam will “try to resolve all issues with them”, reference to disputes in the South China Sea.

Vietnamese and Chinese communist youths wave flags to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping and Vietnamese Communist Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong (both not pictured) at a meeting in Hanoi on November 6, 2015. Xi said he hoped for a "higher level" partnership with Vietnam on a visit that has angered Vietnamese nationalists at a time of bubbling conflict over the South China Sea. AFP PHOTO / POOL / Na Son Nguyen / AFP PHOTO / POOL / Na Son Nguyen
Vietnamese and Chinese communist youths wave flags to welcome national leaders at a meeting in Hanoi on November 6, 2015. Photo: AFP/Na Son Nguyen

For centuries, China has been something of a bogeyman in Vietnam. Chinese incursions into what is today Vietnamese territory date back to the 1st century BC, while much of northern Vietnam, including the Red River basin, was controlled by China for millennia.

Numerous so-called “Chinese dominations” of Vietnamese land took place throughout the centuries, including colonization in the 15th century, after which even independent Vietnamese territories adopted Chinese customs, including bureaucratic models and written script. (Many were only dropped after French colonization.)

So when Hanoi planned last year to introduce a new special economic zone (SEZ) law that allowed for 99-year land leases, many perceived the move as selling Vietnamese land to Chinese companies, perceptions that sparked some of the largest nationalistic protests in the country in years.

Despite the government’s assurances that the SEZs would be open to all foreign investors, the demonstrations were so forceful that the government made a rare volte-face, saying it would delay the SEZ proposal “for further study.”

It remains unclear whether the Communist Party’s decision this year to allow for a more open retelling of the 1979 war with China is an admission that the public should be allowed to shape how Vietnamese history is told, or, at the least, to show the public that it isn’t Beijing’s tool.

According to Tuyen, it was all part of the communist regime’s “own game” in the geopolitical field, “swinging between the powers China and the US.”