China’s Friends in High Places
You’re wasting your time, the Captain said with cold certitude. “These stories story will never be published in America. There are too many people here who do not want them told.”
“I think somebody will want to publish them,” I responded with wavering confidence.
“I know I’m right” he said, “because I know the US. And I know how deeply we have penetrated the so-called American security services as well as the American media over the past decades. I know it, I think, better than you Americans do. And I know who our friends are here and how much influence they have. That’s my job. You see,” he said, “there are many dear friends of China in the West. You have no idea. And let me assure you, in case you are trying to imagine otherwise, most of them have round eyes. I’ve met them and spoken with them in Beijing, I’ve shaken hands with them in Tstingtao and Shanghai. Really, Americans have no idea what is going on in the world. Despite your so-called free media, they have always been clueless.”
“Give me an example,” I said.
“Ok, “ he answered. “Let me use Henry Kissinger’s visits to Beijing starting in 1971. In the PLA we knew everything about it. After all, he flew on a Chinese aircraft from Pakistan to China. And he used translators provided by us. We were surprised and a little confused to learn of his concern that the American public and the American Congress and the American State Department, not be informed about his visit and his talks. They were left in the dark. Yet we knew what the Americans were planning and doing. But the American people and the American intelligence services, even the CIA, did not. Is this how democracy works? It’s really quite funny.”
The Captain is an officer in the China’s People’s Liberation Army Navy. He is well connected. His father is a retired Admiral. He was born with position, wealth and influence. He was born, as the Chinese say, with an excessive amount of “guanxi.”
He attended special schools for ranking party and military officials children in Beijing and then graduated from the Nanjing Institute of International Relations. following graduation he rose quickly in the ranks of the navy. His successful work on breaking the American Navy’s code for the 7th fleet in the early 1980s (using American provided technology intended for listening in on Soviet radio traffic) not only brought him prestige and recognition but catapulted him into the job of assistant to an admiral in Beijing. From that position he watched and listened to Americans who were eager and willing to provide China with technology and assistance.
“Why do they do it?” he asked his commander, after a visit by one American delegation bearing classified high-tech materials to Beijing.
“They do it,” came the reply, “for money. This is the contradiction of capitalism,” the admiral told him. “They are loyal not to a country but to dollars. This is the how they are different from us. We have our country. They have their dollars. And this in time will destroy them. We will give them enough rope, and, without realizing it, they will hang themselves.”
In his position in Beijing both with the Navy and with Polytechnologies (Bao Li), the business arm of the Chinese military, he learned of the long and secret (and as even he would say, the shameful)cooperation of Americans with the Beijing regime. It began, as he tells it, on a grand and unprecedented scale, with Henry Kissinger in 1971, with the National Security Adviser’s secret trips to Beijing to arrange for President Richard Nixon’s visit in February 1972, an election year.
“My commanding officer was present,” he says, “when an astounding thing took place. Mr. Kissinger handed over to the top PLA officials a bundle of highly classified materials from the NSA. Even Kissinger’s aides seemed stunned and surprised by this. The materials, which we were unable to get through our own operatives in Washington, were both satellite photographs and details of Soviet installations along the borders of the Soviet Union with China. At first we thought this cannot be true, this is too good to be true. But when we double checked the figures with what we knew, indeed they were true. And these were but the first cache of materials that Mr. Kissinger provided to us. On each of his trips to Beijing he brought along in his briefcase the latest classified NSA materials. I don’t think any of us understood his motivation since we did not ask for this. Kissinger described it as “the eyes and ears” of American intelligence. Yet at the same time he was concerned that the American State Department and press not learn of what he was doing.
“After that we knew that Mr. Kissinger was a good friend –in fact, he was the very best friend – that China had in Washington. It was understood, as Mr. Kissinger told us, that he was responsible for Mr. Nixon’s interest in visiting China(we later learned that this was not true). But I think given what Mr. Kissinger did for the PLA, you can understand why he is so gratly admired in China down to the present day.
“Following Mr. Nixon’s resignation, of course, Gerald Ford became the American president and the close relationship, through Mr. Kissinger, remained intact. We wondered and worried, however, after the American election of 1976, if Mr. Carter and his National Security Adviser would be as cooperative and as pliant as was Mr. Kissinger and the Republican presidents. We were pleasantly surprised to find that nothing had changed. Things even improved on the national defense front.
We were quite pleasantly surprised at the way America’s leaders refused to tell the American public the truth about what was happening in Asia. It was comforting, in a way. The same is true, of course, not merely with the Americans but with the French and the British. For example, all of the anti-aircraft batteries in Dienbienphu in 1954, the battle the decided the fate of Vietnam and all of Indochina, were supplied and manned by China. We did not teach the Vietnamese how to use them. That would be dangerous. We were pleasantly surprised when the French government refused to report this fact to the French public. And when the Geneva Conference on the Indochina situation was held in the spring and summer of 1954, Zhou Enlai and the Chinese delegation, refused to present their passports to the Swiss officials and then refused to identify themselves upon checking into their hotel in Geneva. No one dared protest. At the end of the conference and the partitioning of Vietnam into two zones, the Vietnamese communists insisted that we were no longer willing to stand up to the west. The shooting down of a Cathay Pacific passenger airliner off the coast of Hainan that summer and the fear of the western powers to do anything about it encouraged our detractors in the communist world to see that we were not afraid of the West and that our bargaining with the US, France and England were not based upon fear but rather upon a restrained and wise view of the weakened west.
“By 1972 and the time of Mr. Nixon’s visit we had stationed more than 300,000 troops in North Vietnam. Once more, all anti-aircraft batteries were manned by Chinese troops wearing Chinese uniforms. When American visitors to North Vietnam were taken to the batteries (and celebrities like Jane Fond photographed sitting behind one of the guns) the Vietnamese took the place of the Chinese. But this was only for the benefit of the North Vietnamese who wished to present to their friends and to the world a view of their independence from China, which was, of course, a myth. Chairman Mao could not understand how the Americans could ignore the Chinese presence in North Vietnam. Chinese troops wore Chinese uniforms and the Americans were obviously aware of their presence. But when he asked why the Americans did not mention this, none of our security personnel could answer him. They guessed that the American government was feared that if the American public knew of our involvement, they would either demand a quick escalation or a quick pullout. Neither happened. What did happen instead was that Mr. Kissinger assured us that the Americans would abandon Vietnam and that history would take its course and the victory would come, after an interval, to the Communists. And this happened.
The Captain remembers, "I was watching television news in Beijing with some friends one evening in early 1977. Suddenly this individual appeared -- a very strange looking guy -- and he was identified as the National Security Adviser to President Jimmy Carter. We were stunned when we saw him. He was, too us, strange looking. I remember several of those watching said, `Look at his long nose,' and laughed. And then someone else said, `He looks just like a hawk.' That's when a friend from the Foreign Ministry said, `Well, he is a hawk.' He then explained that the man on television, Mr. Zbigniew Brzezinski, was a political hawk in America. He was called a hawk because of his unfriendly and tough attitude toward the Soviet Union. I remember the exchange because it was the first time I heard the American expression 'hawk' to describe a political position," Li said.
"Brzezinski was interesting to us not simply because of his odd appearance. We were also fascinated by his background. We were told that he had come to the U.S. from Poland -- a communist nation and a Russian satellite. And so we thought that he must know communism and the Soviet Union well. We wondered what his position might be toward China and we discussed it at length.
"Basically, I think, those of us in the military had not had much direct contact with
Americans and we thought that most Americans looked pretty much alike. We thought they
"Some of my friends from the Foreign Ministry asked if he was a Jew, like Henry Kissinger. Kissinger was great friend of China -- and we believed that all Jews were friends of China. Israel, after all, had been one of the first nations in the world to recognize the People's Republic of China in 1949. And Israel eventually provided us with important technology and training denied us by the U.S. and other western nations.
"We learned that Brzezinski was not a Jew. Yet he proved to be a very good friend of China. A very good friend, indeed.
"After Brzezinski's 1978 visit to Beijing and all of the help and the promise of help that he provided -- and which he eventually delivered -- I talked about him with one of my superiors -- a high-ranking naval officer -- who had conferred with the long-nosed Polish-American hawk. He spoke at length about what a great friend of the Chinese people Brzezinski was. My superior had spoken in the same tone many times before about our "American friends" -- usually referring to the overseas Chinese who resided in America and who were always eager to help their homeland. He told me that he trusted those American friends even though they were not members of the Communist party. I asked him how this could be. And he replied that those who serve the people and the party, I would discover, were often outside the party. But their heart was in the right place. Mr. Brzezinski might could serve a better function, in this regard. He was an unusual American friend, for sure!
"After Brzezinski's 1978 visit to Beijing and all of the help and the promise of help that he provided -- and which he eventually delivered -- I talked about him with my superior -- a high-ranking military officer who had conferred with the long-nosed Polish-American hawk. He spoke at length about what a great friend of the Chinese people Brzezinski was. My superior had spoken in the same tone many times before about our "American friends" -- usually referring to the overseas Chinese who resided in America and who were always eager to help their homeland. He told me that he trusted those American friends even though they were not members of the Communist party. I asked him how this could be. And he replied that those who serve the people and the party, I would discover, were often outside the party. But their heart was in the right place. Mr. Brzezinski might could serve a better function, in this regard. He was an unusual American friend, for sure!
"I think Brzezinski's enthusiasm at first made us suspicious. He was interested in helping us defend ourselves against the Soviet Union. The interests of America and China with regard to the Soviet Union, he indicated, were the same. And so he was interested in assisting us by providing aid in the form of classified American intelligence and very useful -- and much needed -- weaponry. It was really almost unbelievable -- almost too good to be true," Li recalled.
Brzezinski's hostility toward the Soviet Union -- part of it no doubt due to the fate of his native Poland at the hands of the Russia and the Soviet Union in modern history -- led him to see in China the perfect counterbalance to Soviet influence in Asia and Indochina. Supported by America, provided with American intelligence, technological assistance, and even, should it come to that, American naval support, the Chinese could contain and punish the transgressions of the most powerful Soviet ally in the region, the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.
In the fall of 1977 the Chinese government invited Brzezinski to Beijing. The next February, in preparation for his trip, the National Security Adviser held several meetings in Washington with the acting chief of the Chinese liaison office in Washington, Han Xu. Brzezinski traveled to Beijing in May with a carefully selected entourage. In meetings with top Chinese officials he demonstrated -- much to their carefully concealed delight -- that his reputation as a hawk was well grounded. He not only brought news of the sincere desire of the U.S. government for cooperation with China to counter the Soviet Union, but he also came bearing gifts designed to impress the political and military leaders of China.
Brzezinski informed his hosts that American regulations concerning sale of "dual-use" technology to China would be relaxed and that the U.S. would no longer oppose arms sales to China by its alliance partners. He also offered the Chinese the "eyes and ears of the West." In the next years, this offer specifically entailed the construction by China and the joint manning and equipping of a special SIGINT(Signal Intelligence) listening post near the Sino-Soviet border to monitor Soviet nuclear and missile testing. I installation has been shared equally by the Chinese and the U.S. intelligence services.
But Brzezinski did not want merely to dazzle the Chinese with promises of future help. He came prepared to share highly-classified American intelligence with them immediately. His companions demonstrated exactly what this entailed.
Samuel Huntington, an NSC staff member, discussed with the Chinese the top secret "Presidential Review Memorandum 10"-- an American assessment of world situation with special attention given to Soviet capability and power. Another of Brzezinski's companions, Morton Abramowitz, the deputy secretary of defense for international security, met privately with a senior Chinese defense official. During that lengthy meeting, Abramowitz -- the first American Defense Department official to visit the PRC -- gave a highly classified briefing to the Chinese on Soviet troop deployment along the Sino-Soviet border and information concerning Soviet strategic weapons. Then, much to the surprise and delight of the Chinese official, he pulled from his briefcase a sheaf of top-secret reconnaissance photographs of Soviet military installations and armor facing China.
All of this transpired prior to the establishment of any formal diplomatic relations between the U.S. and China. Yet this bothered Brzezinski not at all. He behaved and spoke as though any problems between the two countries could be easily worked out or brushed aside. He indicated, moreover, that should the Chinese need additional help -- which they did -- in the form of weapons or American military power -- it was their's for the asking. The Chinese did indeed have concerns and needs. They were concerned, should they go to war with Vietnam, that the Soviet Union would respond militarily. China's own intelligence system spotted a Soviet task force heading toward the South China Sea. China feared that the Soviets intended shell the Chinese installations in the Xisha(Paracel) Islands, south of Hainan. The islands had been seized during a brief fight with the South Vietnamese in 1974. The defenses on the islands were inadequate for a confrontation with the Soviet fleet. The Chinese needed, specifically, state of the art heavy torpedoes -- Mark 46 torpedoes -- for their submarine fleet, as a deterrent against the Soviets. America possessed the torpedoes but was forbidden to sell them to the Chinese. The Chinese indirectly expressed their interest in this specific weapon. It is not known today what specific reply might have been given to their request, repeated in Washington in January during Deng Xiaoping's visit to the capital. There seems little doubt, from what the Chinese military officials indicated to their staffs, that Brzezinski intimated that the U.S. would provide the ways and the means by which China might not only defend herself against the Soviets but also punish Vietnam and support an ally, the Pol Pot Khmer Rouge forces in Kampuchea(Cambodia). And it is known that the torpedoes were delivered -- in a clandestine manner --in February, 1979.
At least one member of the American delegation was troubled by the promises of the National Security Adviser and noted that "Zbig was trying to tantalize the Chinese" by "giving them hints that they could expect a lot more from us." And upon returning to Washington, William Gleysteen wrote a memo attacking Brzezinski's tactic of raising Chinese expectations of obtaining American support that had been neither discussed nor approved at highest level of US government. Brzezinski ignored the memo.
Relations between the Vietnamese communists and China started to come undone in 1972 with the visit of Richard Nixon to Beijing and the gradual move towards normalization of relations with America. The victory of the communist forces in China in 1949 helped swing the military balance toward the Vietnamese communist forces in their struggle against the French. Chinese aid in the form of advisers and materiel had been given generously from that time down through the defeat of the American-backed forces in South Vietnam in 1975.
After that, and following the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1976, differences between Beijing and Hanoi increased in number and severity. Serious disputes arose over title to islands in the South China Sea claimed by both countries, trade along the Sino-Vietnam border, problems between the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea -- which China supported -- and Vietnam, and finally the status of the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam.
intelligence from the
After that, and following the deaths of Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai in 1976, differences between Beijing and Hanoi increased in number and severity. Serious disputes arose over title to islands in the South China Sea claimed by both countries, trade along the Sino-Vietnam border, problems between the Khmer Rouge regime in Kampuchea -- which China supported -- and Vietnam, and finally the status of the ethnic Chinese in Vietnam.
In the summer of 1978, the Vietnamese government cracked down on the ethnic Chinese(Hoa) in Vietnam and began expelling them. Ships from the PRC attempting to transport the ethnic Chinese out of Vietnam were denied landing privileges. In June, Vietnam began a secret bombing of Cambodian positions along the common border separating the two countries. China continued to arm the Khmer Rouge and supported them against the Vietnamese. In July, China cancelled all of its remaining aid projects in Vietnam.
But Vietnam had other friends. On November 1, Vietnamese communist party boss Le Duan landed in Moscow where he was greeted by five members of the Soviet Politburo. Two days later the Vietnamese and the Soviet Union signed 25 year Treaty of Friendship and Cooperation. Article Six of the treaty provided the Vietnamese with the insurance they sought against Chinese aggression. "If either side is attacked or exposed to the threat of attack, the two signatory powers will immediately confer with each other in order to remove this threat and take appropriate and effective steps to safeguard the peace and security of both countries," the article stated. The Soviet military forces were granted the use of Vietnamese air and naval facilities, including the American-constructed facilities at Cam Ranh Bay.
Two days later Deng Xiaoping arrived in Bangkok where he denounced Soviet "hegemonists" and suggested in private that "Phnom Penh will fall." He confided that although he did not like the brutal policies of Pol Pot, he nonetheless would not allow Kampuchea to be ruled from Hanoi. Several days later in Singapore he said of the Vietnamese, "These ungrateful people must be punished. We gave them $20 billion of aid, Chinese sweat, and blood and look what happened." When Prime Minister Lee Kwan Yew asked him how he would punish them, Deng said, "We have ways and means."
An understanding the Chinese experience in Vietnam in 1979 is central for any understanding of later national defense developments in China. The need for modernization of the military was brought home to the Chinese dramatically and tragically in Vietnam.
In Beijing in November and early December, Deng consolidated his control over the Chinese Communist Party and arranged for his supporters Zhao Ziyang and Hu Yaobang to be given increased power. And as China prepared for war with Vietnam, Deng again and again cited American military intelligence estimates of the troop strength and deployment of the Soviet Union along China's border. When he was informed that the army was not prepared for such a war, he said that the war would be good, even if all military objectives were not achieved. If only 70 percent were attained, the 30 percent failure could be used as a stimulus for future miliary modernization and improvement.
"Mr. Deng knew that the PLA was not really ready to fight that war," Wang believes. "But the reason he wanted the fight was because he knew that even if China suffered, that would then provide a reason to boost national defense spending, because he could tell his other colleagues, `See the war has showed that after all of these years of peace we lacked military training, our equipment was not advanced enough.' The Vietnamese war, served as an excuse to give more money and attention to the military -- and it that sense it was an unqualified success." In time, Poly Technologies was formed as a result of the lessons of the Vietnam War.
Chinese-American relations were normalized on December 15, 1978. War came to Indochina nine days later, on December 24th, with Vietnam's attack on Kampuchea. Vietnamese forces quickly shattered the Khmer Rouge forces and on January 7th, as Deng had predicted, Phnom Penh fell.
"There was no concern at that time, keep in mind, with what the Khmer Rouge were doing to their own people in Cambodia," Li explained to me. "None at all. No matter how brutal they might be within their own border, they were still friends to China. They were, in fact, our only friends in Indochina. That is the only thing we cared about. Our relations with them involved a regional strategical balance and not internal policies. We want to see our friends in power. As to what they do in power, with power, well that is the internal affair of any foreign country. It's not our business. That should by no means be interfered with by an outside power. China included. What you do is your own business. So long as you are my friend, that is important.
"I know at that time," Li said, "we felt somewhat ashamed, as far as I saw it, because we knew that our Navy was not strong enough and we were unable to support the Khmer Rouge when they were under fire. So we just hated the Vietnamese for their actions. We were proven to be helpless. We saw the Vietnamese occupying everything. And we knew we had to do something."
Deng now moved to line up his own allies in the coming fight with Vietnam. In mid-January he traveled to Washington.
He found policy makers there worried over the indifference of the Soviet Union to American expressions of concern over Soviet-Cuban activity in Africa and the Middle East and increasing Soviet involvement in Vietnam and Afghanistan. At the same time the President Carter was anxious resolve other problems by moving ahead on a Salt II agreement with the Soviets. On the eve of Deng's visit Carter received a concerned message from Leonid Brezhnev expressing serious concern over any possible American arms sales to China. Brzezinski responded to the message two weeks later by pointing out to Brezhnev that every country had the right to sell defensive weapons to China, and China had the right to buy them.
Deng arrived in Washington on January 28 while at the same time a Chinese army of 225,000 men was being deployed near the Sino-Vietnamese border. In private meetings with American leaders -- including, of course, President Carter --the Chinese vice-premier pointed out that the US and China had a common enemy in the Soviet Union and he asked for close collaboration in dealing with this enemy. He let it be known that China was ready to retaliate against Vietnam for invading Cambodia and deposing the Khmer Rouge. Deng insisted that "we consider it necessary to put a restraint on the wild ambitions of the Vietnamese and to give them an appropriate limited lesson."
The American provided a dual response -- part public and part secret. Publicly, the President's sought to distance the U.S. from the coming conflict. In a hand-written letter to Deng, Carter stressed the importance of restraint and the likelihood of adverse international reaction to the Chinese action.
But Deng found support in other places. He was encouraged by House Speaker Tip O'Neill, who compared the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia to the German invasion of Poland, an odd comparison, since the Vietnamese had just deposed one of the bloodiest regimes in the 20th century -- the Khmer Rouge. Brzezinski, too, was an admirer of Deng's tough talk and wrote, "I secretly wished that Deng's appreciation of the uses of power would also rub off on some of the key U.S. decision makers, "
O'Neill, like Brzezinski, was not bothered much by the Khmer Rouge who were, after all, the allies of the Chinese and enemies of the Vietnamese and the Russians. They were armed and directed in fighting by the Chinese. Animosity for the Soviet Union and its allies tended to blind American policy makers at that time to the sins not only of our friends but also to those of the friends of our friends.
Brzezinski wrote later of Carter's position that "I felt that this was the right approach, for we could not collude formally with the Chinese in sponsoring what was tantamount to overt military aggression." And so there was no formal collusion. But there was informal and covert collusion. Deng returned to Beijing with important assurances of this from his American friends.
Upon his return to China, Deng briefed his military and party leaders on the success of his visit to the U.S. The Chinese military immediately began receiving daily deliveries of NSA photographs of Russian troop deployment along the China-Soviet border and of the deployment of Vietnamese forces along the Sino-Vietnamese border. Chinese military strategists concluded from the photographs, that the Soviets were not responding to the Chinese buildup along the Vietnam border with a buildup along their own southern border with China.
"When Mr. Deng returned from Washington," Yvonne recalled, "We were told that he had achieved an important understanding with the White House and the NSA would providing cooperation and aid in the punishment of Vietnam. We were very encouraged by this statement.
"Remember, the Vietnamese at that time occupied not only Kampuchea, but they also had infiltrated into Laos and used it as a base, and from Laos they fired on Thailand. The border area between Laos and Thailand was actually under fire by the Vietnamese. But Thailand was the closest American ally in the region at that time and they were on very good terms with China, since China supplied the Khmer Rouge, through Thailand. So, after the invasion of Kampuchea, we began supplying arms to the Thai army, too. So there was a tighter relationship formed between the two countries. You see, the feeling was that nobody was going to defend the Thais against the Vietnamese. And both sides knew it. The Americans would never again commit themselves to a Vietnam war. So the only force left to protect Thailand from the Vietnamese was China.
"It seemed to us that Vietnam was expanding -- running wild -- all over Indochina, and China was not happy about that. The only way to save Thailand and to teach Vietnam a lesson was to attack Vietnam. Of course we were very concerned about the response of the Soviet Union from the North -- especially after the Vietnamese treaty with the Soviet Union, We could surely not fight two wars at the same time. The Russians, of course, supported the Vietnamese."
"We were so relieved when the Americans began providing daily satellite photographs of the Vietnamese and the Soviet military maneuvers along the Sino-Soviet border and the Sino-Vietnam border," Li recalled. The photographs "gave us confidence because they indicated that although the Soviet union expressed their concern about what we were doing they were not preparing an attack along the border.
"Yet, by their naval actions they seemed to be saying, 'All right, even if you are going to invade Vietnam, we are not going to do nothing at all because Vietnam is our friend, and we cannot let our friend just be punished by you without doing something.' By this time both the Chinese and the Americans were tracking the movement of the Soviet task force. The Chinese were very alarmed by this.
"We expected some type of Soviet retaliation, but we were not sure where and how. We guessed it would be by air or water because a major ground attack would certainly be far too costly for them. And if it was by water, then we assumed it would be against our bases in the Xisha Islands, which were vulnerable" Li said.
"While the Chinese army assembled near the Sino-Vietnamese border, all general commanders of the PLA Navy were dispatched to Zhian Jiang, headquarters of the South Sea Fleet to supervise naval operations. The destination of the Soviets, it was concluded, was without doubt the Xisha islands. At this same time, at the six-story, marbled naval headquarters compound on Fuxing road in a western suburb of Beijing, in the second floor naval operations center where communications and intelligence for naval operations are deciphered and analyzed, in the charting room, officers followed the latest information on the movements of the US Seventh Fleet and the Soviet naval task force heading toward the Tsushima Strait, between Korea and Japan. The movement of the Soviet force was detected by the Chinese navy's own monitoring posts along China's south coast line as well as through photographs delivered to the naval operations center by the Third Department of the General Staff. The Third Department was the organization that actually received the American satellite photographs. The photos were delivered from the US defense attache and his staff in Beijing. They received the appropriate satellite communications directly through special deciphering technologies and demodulation devices for the high resolution photographs taken by what we called the U.S. Black Birds, which were actually watching the movements of the Soviet fleet and the ground troops in formation along the Sino-Soviet border."
In early February, Soviet intelligence-gathering and escort ships were in the South China Sea near Vietnam and the Vietnamese warned that if China engaged the forces of Vietnam the Chinese would also have to confront the Soviet fleet. Yet the Soviet response to the attack was surprisingly slow. One week after the invasion, a Soviet naval task force led by a the flagship of the Pacific Fleet, the guided missile cruiser Admiral Senyavin sailed south through the Strait of Tsushima and into the East China Sea. The task force then turned south, away from the Chinese coast, and headed toward the Philippines to avoid Chinese detection. But then the task force turned north and sailed into the South China Sea. By February 28, eight Soviet ships were deployed in the South China Sea and three in the East China Sea. The Americans also responded and the carriers Midway and Constellation sailed into the South China Sea. And as the Soviet ships neared the Xisha islands, an American battle group spearheaded by carrier Coral Sea, as the Chinese expected, moved into position behind them.
The Chinese attack came on February 17. In the first phase of the attack, Chinese artillery opening up with a ferocious cross-border barrage of Vietnamese positions. An American reporter who was some distance from the action, wrote that it sounded like a B52 strike. The major difference was, he wrote, that the air attacks seldom lasted for more than a minute, while this barrage lasted for twenty minutes. Then 85,000 Chinese troops, supported by armor, poured across the Sino-Vietnamese border at 26 different points.
The sixteen-day "pedagogical war"(February 17 to March 5) -- as China eventually referred to the conflict -- was a bitter and bloody military encounter. Although statistics for the brief incursion into the northern provinces of Vietnam are sketchy, in fact, some of the soldiers who were there suggest --after insisting that the official statistics are "more or less bullshit" -- that based upon their experiences in Vietnam and upon later analyses published for China's military leaders -- Chinese losses in the war may have come close to American losses in Vietnam during more than a decade -- 58,000. "It was incredibly bloody," Li recalled. "And savage. Those of us who had not been in Korea or India and who had never seen war before, we never dreamed it would be like that. Never.
"Many of the troops sent to Vietnam were not well prepared for the war and not adequately armed. And they paid for that with their lives.
"The only good thing to come out of the conflict -- the best thing, actually -- for the soldiers themselves, I think, was the destruction that I saw of Liang Xian(Lang Son), which I witnessed personally. We took great delight in that, it was our revenge, or, as one of our leaders said, it was a "goodbye kiss" to the Vietnamese, something that they could see and always remember us by. The same thing happened to other towns in the northern Vietnam. And we do not regret it now, in retrospect. Not one bit. My only regret is that we could not go on and do the same thing to Hanoi and Haiphong.
Troops along the border had been harassed for weeks by the Vietnamese. "There were so many troops at the border who were involved in the attack, and they reported that they were constantly fired upon by the Vietnamese, who seemed to us to be inviting an attack. Our commanders reported that they were fired upon daily in border region by Vietnamese troops in the border region. Also, Vietnamese soldiers disguised themselves as peasants and they crossed the border to carry out sabotage against military and communications installations.
"Those of us stationed near the border," Wang said, became really angry by this. The point of it all seemed to be that the Vietnamese believed that they were strong enough to be a rival to China and to do whatever they wished. They claimed that their military was the third largest in the world. And they wanted to prove that they were the strong and the dominant force in Indochina and that now they alone would call the tune there.
"In analyzing what happened, in our so-called after action reports," Li recalled, "we were really upset by the huge costs of the victory. Basically, the PLA was not well prepared for the war.
"They did not have much time, first. And so many units after getting up at 6:00 am were simply told to pack everything and the following day they were in battle. They were poorly trained and ill prepared for the conflict. And just look at some of the supplies of the ammunition they were asked to use against the Vietnamese. It had long-ago expired. As a consequence, a lot of shells, even though they hit the targets, didn't explode." [This is illustrated in the popular Chinese film "Garlands at the Foot of the Mountain," in which Chinese troops sacrifice much because of bad ammunition, which had been stockpiled in inventory for too many years, finding in overrun Vietnamese positions, an abundance of the very latest equipment supplied by the PLA].
The effectiveness of the Chinese advance was hindered by the lack of reliable ordnance. "A lot of ammunition used against the Vietnamese at that time was manufactured in the 1950s," Wang remembered. "There was a period of usefulness and it had passed, expired, and that means that if you did not fire this sort of weapon or this explosive shell, then the due period was passed and the effectiveness had expired. And that is why a lot of soldiers were killed using anti-tank rockets. They had to stand up to use it, and when they stood up and fired, and the shell hit the tank it didn't explode. It showed the Chinese were stupid to try to use this kind of weapons in the first place, but in the second place, you knew that this was a very good way for Deng to show that we had old weapons and ammunition and we needed military modernization quickly.
"It is very unfortunate that we never learned from the American experience in Vietnam. We believed that the Americans lost only because they did not believe in what they were doing. Despite an army having the latest equipment, if it does not believe in its cause, it cannot win. That is what Mao taught us. And so our military planners very simply dismissed the Americans and their war.
"We believed, we really believed, that if we applied the full force of the PLA that the Vietnamese would be shattered in a matter of hours, that we would be in Hanoi and Haiphong within a day or two. Then, at that point we would withdraw, having punished these ungrateful and arrogant people.
"But the truth turned out to be very unfortunate. And it was a costly victory. "One big problem in the war had to do with the deployment of armor. One guy who came out of the Vietnam war as an Army hero is Xu Yenbing. He is the son of Xu Guangda, who was the father of the Chinese armored corps. Like Mr. Xiao, he had been handpicked for his position by Mao. Mr. Xu had been the general commander of the Chinese armored corps, or what we call the Drung Jabing, for maybe more than ten years.
"Xu Yenbing was a regimental tank commander at the time of the Vietnam War. But one of the things he failed to realize was that the terrain in northern Vietnam is not suitable for the use of tanks. I mean Americans learned that in Vietnam, but the Chinese simply refused to learn anything from the American experience. Stupid. And so they did commit the tanks to battle, battalions and regiments, to the battle, early, and they were not a big help.
"Just across the border, a single Vietnamese female sniper, in one well-documented and very unfortunate case, took out seven tanks, one by one. I mean that is one of the silly and tragic things that happened to the tank regiments.
"There was another instance where the tanks in the advance groups were ordered to cross over a bridge. They were in a hurry. The never calculated the load capacity of the bridge. They simply assumed, stupidly, that a bridge would support the weight of several tanks. And so when the tanks were crossing the bridge, it collapsed, and the tanks fell into a river -- several of them fell together. At most, a single tank should have been on that bridge. Apparently the Chinese tank commander thought the Vietnamese were great engineers, but they weren't that great. In yet another instance, there was a steep hill, yet still the tank commanders ordered the tanks to climb up the hills and advance quickly. The incline was too great and the tanks turned over and tumbled backward on their top. Still the commander ordered the tanks to advance, assuming it was the problem of the drivers of the tank, not a problem of the commander. A half dozen tanks were put out of commission in this way. The commander of that particular unit was arrested and court martialed later.
"In fact, there were many courts martial because of the Vietnam war, many right in the field. Later news from these courts martial was circulated but only within the military. And a lot of problems became apparent. This was, of course, never circulated in the public.
"The manpower losses were considered great but not significant, ironically. Both in terms of personnel and in supplies. The biggest and most important loss in the war was considered to be, naturally, the loss of prestige. The weaknesses of the PLA was exposed. There was also a problem in terms of discipline and obedience.
"Disobedience was made most apparent at a road junction running between the Chinese border and the military objective of Liang Xian(Lang Son)," Wang recalled, "where there was an intersection of mountain roads. Because roads at the time were critical to the movement of the troops, when different units of the army approached this intersection at the same time, nobody listened to anybody else, and they literally started to fight for the damned road. This is true. At that time, the PLA did not yet have official ranks and so there were not any insignia on the uniforms to distinguish between commanders and lower officers. Since this was the People's Army, this practice was intended to emphasize that in one sense all soldiers were equal. So we had problems with that right away. On this occasion -- and this was published and circulated among the military later on -- the commander of the 41st corps of the PLA was on the spot, standing at the middle of a road junction, just like General Patton once did with his Third Army in Europe -- directing all his forces to advance. He thought he could do that, but there were several junior officers -- also without insignia on their uniforms -- from another unit who wanted the right of way in the road. And they shouted at him, "What the fuck are you doing? Who are you to think you can direct the forces here?"
And he said, "I am the corps commander."
And the junior officers replied, "How do we know that you are the corps commander? " They couldn't believe that the corps commander was standing there in person directing the forces. And one of them shouted, "If you are the corps commander, then I am the general commander in chief!" And another added, "And I am Deng Xiaoping!"
At that moment, the general's aids, who had been in the rear, came running up and a fistfight broke out -- a serious fight with these officers rolling around in the mud -- it was raining at the time. In a few minutes all of these men were covered with mud and they were swearing at each other and kicking and slugging it out. Then another senior officer came up and actually recognized the corps commander and shouted out that indeed this was the man in charge. And only then did the fighting stop. Now remember, this is a true story.
"This story was immediately related to Mr. Deng, and this was one of the things that helped him make up his mind that the Chinese army needed to adopt the rank system again. So within two years we had ranks again and insignia, thanks to the Vietnam experience.
"The problem of a lack of insignia was also manifested in the artillery units in Vietnam. They could never identify themselves. And in one case a small group overslept and was left behind when their unit departed. Very simply they woke up in the morning and found they were alone. They quickly set out to find their units. But the artillery corps was heavily protected by other units, security was high. If you did not belong to the unit, you could never get in. So these guys, perhaps two days later caught up with their unit but they were not allowed to rejoin it. They said they belonged to the artillery, but without the proper identification -- in the Chinese army we didn't have that sort of identification -- they were not allowed past sentry posts.
"There were many deaths also from friendly fire. A lot of artillery shells rained down on our own forces in Vietnam. First, we had a very serious ranging problem. The men in the field were unable to target the enemy properly either because they were poorly trained or there was no forward observer for them or both. So sometimes the artillery was fired randomly, actually. And that was a problem. The root of this problem was lack of communication between field commanders.
Another problem was the logistical support. Part of this problem was because China may have committed just too many troops to the fight. We didn't need that many men fighting against the Vietnamese. I don't know what American military commanders learned in fighting against the Vietnamese, but fighting against the Vietnamese really requires more expertise by well trained units rather than a huge number of personnel committed to combat on the ground. Another problem was that the Chinese air force never ever committed itself to battle. Some were afraid of the very considerable SAM defense system on the Vietnamese side -- supplied by the Russians. They were very accurate. They could actually hit and kill B52s. So there was a great concern for this. The air force was therefore not committed to the fight. Secondly, we thought we could do it without air power.
Also, when the war came, because of the lack of communication and coordination among the various forces, sometimes they found that there were, for example, two entire divisions fighting for a small town at the same time without either being aware of this. This happened where there was not even enough space to commit one regiment, and yet they crowded in two divisions. Three divisions attacked the town of Liang Xian. Many troops were lined up with nothing to do because there was no room for them to maneuver at that time. There were few helicopters for the commanders to stay in touch with the various units and nobody was sure how large the enemy forces were. Sometimes when there was no longer any Vietnamese resistance, as in Liang Xian(Lang Son),the Chinese kept firing away because of bad intelligence work.
"We thought there was a strong post of Vietnamese defenders there in the town, so we fired hundreds of thousands of shells into the city. It literally rained artillery on Liang Xian for 8 hours. And then we invaded. All we found were piles of the dead and a few hundred dazed survivors wandering around. The survivors, I remember, seemed strange to us since all of them were deaf -- due to the tremendous artillery barrage. We put them all out their misery.
"There were counterattacks by the Vietnamese. There are stories of course, like that of Chinese battalions and smaller units trapped and holding some of the remote mountain tops. These were strategically important positions for us and for the Vietnamese too. And so they reorganized their troops and tried to retake the hills. It was just like what happened in Korea at Shangan Ling, what you called "Porkchop Hill" -- in Korea. There was this fierce battle, this tug-of-war struggle for the high ground and for other strategic points. And so there was severe fighting, but the Vietnamese were basically on the defense, and they were retreating.
The fiercest fighting by the Vietnamese came from their local forces or the paramilitary forces and not from their regular units. We had very serious problems with these people. They went into tunnels and caves and hid there until our units passed and then they came out and attacked us from behind or from the flanks. We really had a lot of problems in getting the Vietnamese out of underground tunnels and caves. Later on we learned from the American experience, and simply threw whatever we had into the tunnels and killed everyone there -- flamethrowers and grenades were fired directly into them.
"At other times the troops became very angry --enraged, actually -- and they became savage in their actions. They did almost anything.
"For example, they had with them very powerful large caliber anti-aircraft guns, sometimes 37 mm guns, very rapid firing guns, and they used these against the Vietnamese on the ground, because they thought that in fighting against the Vietnamese they had to commit everything. While the military doctrine tells them that this is purely for anti-air purposes and nothing else, still, in their frustration, they just leveled the barrel and shot at targets on the ground.
"Migs circled overhead, but primarily on the Chinese side. Sometimes they flew over Hanoi, but not often. They wanted to impress upon the Vietnamese that we had air superiority. So the Mig 21 sorties were constantly in the air, but were never committed to battle. This was just to scare off Vietnamese fighters. And this worked.
"The Vietnamese concentrated their forces to defend Hanoi. They knew that we could take Hanoi. They knew that from their military instincts. Hanoi was, my God, in terror. If the Chinese wanted to, they could have taken it, in a matter of hours.
"Then it was over, suddenly. It was like the war against India in 1962, while having total military victory within our grasp, we withdrew unilaterally. China did that. Our goals had been accomplished. The Vietnamese had been punished. We had no imperialist intentions and we returned to China. But not before leaving behind a lesson for the Vietnamese.
"As the conflict was ending, the entire senior class of the PLA Army engineering school from Nanjing, Gong Cheng Bing Ji Shu Xue Yuan, was summoned to Liang Xian for duty. As a final examination, the school commandant told them, they were ordered to demolish every building in the city. They were extremely skilled at demolition -- and they were trained for it.
So they wired up the whole city, they dug every day. For about a week they did nothing else. They placed explosives here and there and everywhere -- in movie theaters, municipal buildings, civilian houses, so long as there is something standing, they wired it up with explosives. God knows how many tons of explosives were used there. The bodies of civilians killed in the shelling and the fighting were just stacked up in piles everywhere and then wired with explosive charges.
Then the PLA evacuated the city, pressed the buttons and the city of Liang Xian was no longer there. Later on we monitored through our intelligence system, what happened when the Vietnamese came back and saw what we had done. We could hear the talk of the first people back to the site. At that time the prime minister of Vietnam was Pham Van Dong, and he personally went to see Liang Xian. We catually heard his cry on the radio. This guy, we were told, cried only once before, when Ho Chi Minh died, but now, when he saw Liang Xian, he cried again. He said in Vietnamese, and we monitored it and we heard him -- `We never knew the Chinese could be so brutal.' You can imagine what happened to the city. God knows how many bodies were there. They were all blown up. All that we left behind was blood and mud and nothing else. This was at the end of the fighting and the Chinese used up all of their explosives against the Vietnamese. They knew we could not march further down the line, and they knew we were pulling back, and so we wanted to leave them something, to show them, in a sense, "We will never forget you guys." It was the largest city Vietnam had in near the border in the north, and when we left there was nothing there.
"It should be pointed out also that when the war was over, there were not many prisoners. As we advanced south, a lot of soldiers didn't sleep for days, and when they had a chance to stop and rest, the Vietnamese paramilitary would shoot at them from the sides and the back, in ambushes. This was common in the war. And there were booby traps everywhere. Everywhere, killing our men." Some sources reported that the bamboo groves of Thanh Hoa and Nghe Tin had been depleted in the Vietnamese effort to make punji spikes for boobie traps to slow down the Chinese forces.
"Mines injured and killed many men. And when this happened, the Chinese soldiers naturally lost all interest in taking prisoners. They played the Vietnamese game. They began shooting everyone. And of course the Vietnamese did the same thing to the PLA soldiers. And later on, there was a Sino-Vietnamese agreement was an exchange of prisoners. And not many POWs showed up because there were not too many. They'd killed them all.
"One of the things that angered our people was the female snipers. As we marched south, the places we passed we considered safe -- since they were not on the front line. But there were no safe places in Vietnam for us.
"And as the tanks advanced at one point, along a steep mountain road, they came to a sharp hairpin turn, and all the tanks would have to stop and make a maneuver and turn left. The standard tank, the T59, has a small aiming hole in front, and when you make that turn the hole is at a standstill and is vulnerable. Well, a sniper at that point fired into a lead tank and killed the operator. This was a company of tanks unsupported by ground forces. And as others tried to move around the disabled vehicle, the same thing happened to them. This happened as seven tanks tried to make the turn. And so the entire column stopped. They didn't dare go on since they concluded they had encountered stiff resistance on the road to Long San. So we halted the whole operation and reported the appearance of formidable resistance. The tanks that stopped fired randomly in all directions, looking for an enemy. But all that was around them was jungle. A whole company of soldiers moved up to rescue the tanks. They began a search operation and they found a girl, a single girl with a rifle, who was the sniper. They surrounded her and finally captured her alive by jumping on her from behind. How many soldiers she had killed at that point, God only knows. But the troops were really angry and frustrated. A tank commander came up and saw who had killed his men and held up his column and he, too, was enraged. He ordered his men to strip the girl and then tie her up tightly and throw her body in the road. Then he called up a tank and drove the tank over her, back and forth and back and forth until nothing was there any more -- until she was in the ground. The soldiers were so frustrated, they just cheered," Li remembered.
"You can imagine how the soldiers and officers felt at this time. The fact is that the PLA was not only short of modern weapons, but they were psychologically unprepared to fight this war, really. They thought it would be a conventional battle, I guess, and they never knew that anyone who was a civilian would also be a soldier. But Vietnam was a country of civilian soldiers. We simply never learned from the Americans and their experience.
"The Vietnamese women approached the Chinese soldiers as though they were friendly and wanted to greet them. And then one of them would throw a grenade or they would blow themselves up with the soldiers. On one occasion a Vietnamese girl -- a civilian -- was wounded in the chest and was taken to a PLA field clinic for treatment. When she got there, she managed to detonate grenades tied to her back. She killed herself and all those -- men as well as women -- inside the clinic.
"The brutality of that war was really something. What the Vietnamese did to their Chinese prisoners was incredible. The Vietnamese captured female Chinese soldiers, and as a matter of simple routine, raped and then killed them and left them for us to find. Many female PLA solders were in the battle region and they served as workers in field hospitals and as aids. They were also charged with establishing camps near the front. But at that time, the war swirled around us and the situation was confusing and nobody knew really where the war was. During the day the Vietnamese were farmers at night they were soldiers against us. Just like against the Americans. We should have learned that. At night they ambushed Chinese troops or shelled them. They overran some rear areas, captured Chinese women soldiers. The female soldiers from China in Vietnam had good family backgrounds. Otherwise, they could not have gotten into the military. That means, a lot of commanders in the field had family members with them, women. And some of those women were captured and killed. The Vietnamese put female prisoners together, they stripped them, brutalized them, raped them and pulled barbed wire through their breasts to link them together, one wire linking a half dozen women together so they could not move. And they used the bamboo shoots and had the women sit on them or kicked them up inside them. And then they left them for us to find. They left them like that to die on the ground. My god. With stories like this being told to us, the soldiers were extremely upset by this, outraged in fact. They were the first to see these things with their own eyes. And they could not stand it. They just could not take it. We heard many accounts of this.
"Well, that cannot go unpunished and it did not. My God, they were extremely brutal. When I first heard that story I was really surprised. Really. So we learned then to do the same thing against the Vietnamese. But the Vietnamese did it in the first place, make no mistake about that, please. It was extremely brutal.
"The complete destruction of Liang Xian was the perfect example of our revenge. And that is why when we heard Pham Van Dong cry, we were very happy about it. And believe me, we would do it all over again. I heard that our troops also did the same to the city of Cao Bang. If this is so, I am happier. But I saw Liang Xian blown up. Good. To show them that this is how they would pay, this is what we would do to them," Li said.
"Today, you can imagine how the soldiers feel when they see the foreign ministers of the two nations embrace. That is one of the reasons why I am telling you these stories. The soldiers coming out of the war, when we see full restoration of the bilateral relationship, of course, we all have serious second thoughts. I don't know what is on the minds of our leaders. You can only imagine. But many of the soldiers who fought in Vietnam are extremely angry still. These Vietnamese -- what a fucking country! What a fucking country! Nobody could be more brutal than them. We had pictures of their atrocities, and we published them for limited circulation in the military, for informational purposes. We wanted all the soldiers to know the nature of the enemy and what the Vietnamese did to us. Some of the pictures were the bodies of the girls, raped and killed. It was brutal. They were like the Japanese in World War II. And the psychological impact was tremendous on the Chinese. The Japanese seemed to enjoy themselves when they slaughtered the Chinese. And so did the Vietnamese. That is why we were extremely angry. And when you are enraged all you do is shoot and destroy, set houses on fire, kill all the people. That is what we did gladly. Happily.
"There is a sort of scorched earth policy that we used. There are some phosphorous mines were near Liang Xian that are of historical importance to the Vietnamese, we heard. So when we came to them, we knew exactly what to do. Exactly. While we were bombarding Liang Xian, we removed the entire mining facility operation and took it back to China with us -- everything that could be picked up. And what we could not take we destroyed. We destroyed the mines and plowed up the roads leading to the mines. We left nothing behind. Nothing but destruction. We blew up mines, tunnels, buildings, roads, everything.
"While we were advancing on land, another drama was taking place in the South China Sea near the Xisha islands. The Americans were about to protect and then supply Chinese naval forces there," Wang said.
"For years we had been trying to get advanced torpedoes," Li said. "And the top of the line at the time was the American manufactured Mark 46, a very advanced weapon. It was a closed loop torpedo so when it is fired it leaves no trail in the water. It is also fast, running at about 40 knots per hour and it is quiet and does not generate a lot of noise, so it is very difficult to detect and then destroy before it hits its target.
"We had been unable to duplicate the Mark 46. Then the Coral Sea battle group came along and we came to understand how important the agreements made by Mr. Deng in Washington really were. Part of our "ways and means' were provided by the Coral Sea group.
As the Americans neared the Xisha islands, an American submarine that was with the Coral Sea battle group, either fired or dropped several Mark 46 torpedoes near the islands. They beached themselves, unharmed, in the mud near our naval forces. And we were able to salvage them successful and bring them ashore. Quite obviously, they were intended for us, and the object of the Americans was was to provide them to us both secretly and intact. That was done. The two Mark 46s were armed. Everything. They were complete. Although in the Xisha islands we were not privy to arrangements made between Beijing and Washington, we do know when and where they were launched and we do also know that no one in the area from the US Navy ever reported them missing.
"Once we had them, then reverse engineering was the problem to be solved. Years later, that would be 1987, the US Navy sold us two more Mark 46 torpedoes to us. But still it was not enough but still we had difficulty duplicating them.
Once the torpedoes were located, they were reported to naval headquarters and divers were dispatched to supervise the salvage operation. The two torpedoes were successful salvaged. This operation was classified by the Navy staff as comparable to the successful salvage of a Soviet tank carried out in 1969 when China was having a border war with the Soviet Union in Heilongjiang Province. At that time, entirely by accident, of course, a Soviet T62 tank broke through the thick ice on the Wusuli River and quickly sank to the bottom. We undertook a major operation of recover this tank, because it sank on the Chinese side of the river. But the Soviets detected our movements, and knew that we wanted to recover it. So they continually shelled the river and the area around it, hoping to drive us off and to destroy the tank. We were in a race against time to pull it out. The navy dispatched special divers who went into the freezing water and connected a cable to the tank, which was then pulled out and saved for our research. The people who carried off this operation were all cited later for their heroism. The tank was studied and then placed in the Beijing military museum, where it was nicknamed "Turtle Shell(Wu Gwei ke). So the successful recovery of the Mark 46 torpedoes, we were told, ranked in significance with the recovery of the Turtle Shell the Soviet Union.
We studied the American torpedoes. We carefully disassembled them and then sent different parts to different research institutes for examination. This enabled the Chinese research institute belonging to the CSSC(China State Shipbulding Corporation) to produce their own copies of the Mark 46. These were constructed for study and then test fired in a pool at a special testing site in a suburb of Kunming. There is a very advanced test facility there. The tests of our copies of the Mark 46 showed that although everything looked exactly the same with the American and Chinese versions, the performance of the Chinese model was inferior to that of the American. But the research continued until China officially obtained more Mark 46s from the U.S. through legal and open channels in 1987.
"Years later," Li said, "I remember very clearly, in the negotiations room of the Systematic Engineering Division of the CSSC, which is not far from the naval compound in Beijing, some American friends gave us technical introductions to the Mark 46, advanced version. And the Chinese experts present questioned the American specialists about the possible modifications of the Mark 46 used by the US navy compared to the earlier versions -- say, those used around 1979!. What revoluaionary advances had the US made? The American experts said that none at all had been made. But actually the Chinese experts at the table could hardly hold in their laughter, because they knew the truth. They knew that these Americans were lying. They knew what changes had been made. Yet the Americans in Beijing never knew how Chinese could know this. These experts from the sales department of the Mark 46 manufacturer had never been told that our American friends had delivered two of their products to us in 1979.
In 1979 we were constructing a short airstrip on one of the Xisha islands, which we had captured in 1974 from the Vietnamese. The responsibility for defending the islands was the responsibility of the Navy. And so as the Soviet Task force, a very formidable one, headed into the South China Sea towards the Xisha islands we expected them to attack there. And the Navy had to prepare itself for this despite the fact that all of our major warships were all concentrated in the North, near Liushan and Tsingtao. All they had available to defend the Xisha islands were lighter ships like frigates and a fleet of small missile boats.
So when the Russian fleet moved, Navy was put on full alert. The Soviet Union, we believed, wanted to show that they were loyal to their friends, that we could not push Vietnam around without consequences. So the Navy was extremely concerned. Reinforcements of the fighter forces from the Naval air arm were sent to the area. And emergency measures were taken near Hainan Island and all of the light forces were concentrated and put on red alert.
We had hundreds of small missile boats, each capable of firing four missiles, had a limited range. But they were the most formidable force available to defend the Xishas. They were required to maintain a constant patrol at sea close to the islands. But because of their limited fuel load, these boats, made a sortie out to a certain range then stayed there for about half an hour and returned. They were then rotated in that way and provided a constant shield for the islands.area. Once they the missile boats neared the end of their patrol another group left port to replace them and when these were low on fuel another group replaced them. They used both the Xisha islands and Hainan as their refueling base.
At that time the General Commander and the political commissar of the navy were called to the South from Beijing. This was it. They were ready for a fight with the Soviets. The destroyers, meanwhile, were called down from the North, but it took them a time to get there and the Russians had already converged on the islands. So it was only missile boats and the submarines that were available to defend the islands, along with fighter cover and some frigates. This was all the Navy had available against the Soviet forces that included not only destroyers but also cruisers heavily armed with missiles. The Russian task force was without a carrier, however. So we had only to worry about attacks by surface vessels.
At that time we received regular intelligence information from the U.S. on the movements of the Soviet fleet.
Then there was a fortuitous coincidence. As the Soviets entered the South China Sea, an American task force followed them Soviets at a great distance. The center of that task force was the Coral Sea. Even today I can remember the number of the ship -- CVA 43. It was amazing to watch this on radar.
The Chinese navy planners figured that what the Russians probably intended to shell our installations on the islands and scare us and make us think that there would be more to come if we didn't withdraw from Vietnam. But they were surprised, suddenly, to find that the Chinese were working, it seemed, in coordination with the American navy. We tracked this on radar and watched the Americans maneuver behind them.
The Soviets were aware of American force, of course. What happened is that the Americans followed the Soviets. They knew that the Chinese navy was vulnerable at that time. They knew they could knock out part of the Chinese force in the Xishas, but they also knew it would be costly. Just one lost ship would be a significant political loss for them.
For whatever the reason as they approached the Xishas, they suddenly changed course and made a sharp turn to the East and left the zone. What a surprise! And then the Americans quietly departed, too, in another direction. But not before leaving us the Mark 46 torpedoes.
So our Navy was extremely relieved at that time, seeing the Soviets sail away. This was to be the only Soviet response against us for the Vietnam invasion and then suddenly it was terminated and the emergency was over.
"After the Vietnam war there was no disillusionment with the PLA. What is interesting is this is exactly what Mr. Deng wanted, by having his war in the first place. He knew that the Chinese military for many years had no chance to fight a battle and they needed one. Fighting against the Vietnamese and committing our forces to battle really suited Chinese purposes at that time. A lot of serious problems were exposed. China never elaborates on the military victory or success. Success is only something westerners and Vietnamese talk about. Not the Chinese.
Although the Chinese effort in Vietnam in 1979 might appear, at first, to outsiders, and particularly to Americans, who lost the Vietnam war, to be strikingly successful. And in some respects it was. What we came home to study was the problems we had during the war. When the war was over, many of the reconnaissance men were sent to the military schools to study and we spoke to them. I was there and spoke with them, and they were on the battlefield, and they were encouraged to report all that they witnessed, the weak points of the military. The Chinese military was very smart on that. Everyone was talking about the lessons we learned. In what way we need to improve ourselves. So Mr. Deng gained a victory more than the battle against the Vietnamese themselves.
During this time the Iranian revolution was unfolding and the Shah of Iran was toppled --he fled from Teheran on January 16th. The American public and the American media seemed riveted to Iran rather than to Southeast Asia and events occurring there. Of critical importance in the shifting relationship with Iran was the fact that America lost two important listening posts located at Bihshahr and Kapkan in northern Iran. Kapkan as the most important of the two for CIA monitoring Russian missile and space launch activity. The Bihshahr stationed closed in December, 1978, but the Kapkan site operated until Iranian employees mutinied, demanded backpay and held the American technicians stationed there captive. A special ransom was eventually paid and the American CIA employees were flown out and the post fell into the hands of the Iranians .
As a result of this, the Carter administration was shopping around for a new site from which to monitor Soviet activities. The friendship and secret alliance forged with the Chinese provided the opportunity to establish that new site after China's war with Vietnam. The concerns of the Chinese and the Americans over the Soviet Union suddenly coalesced and a new and unlikely alliance was forged.
The Chinese were able to make another deal with the Carter administration when the Americans offered to set up a new listening post in Northwest China at a secret location just outside Urumchi. The undertaking, called Project 851 by the Chinese, began in 1980 with construction of facilities in Xinjiang province close to Tian Shan("Sky Mountain"). It involves American software and hardware along with about 30 personnel from the NSA, who are rotated in and out of the post on a regular basis, and a greater number of Chinese military personnel who jointly occupy the post with the Americans and have access to all of the American top-secret materials gathered at the facility. According to a secret agreement between the two countries, China agreed to supply the maintenance personnel for the Project while the US provided the top intelligence experts, and technicians and the hardware and software. The US also agreed to provide it with the most advanced US equipment and at the same time to train the Chinese to operate and maintain the equipment. Project 851, which the Chinese explain to others as an earthquake monitoring station, has been over the years, absolutely undisturbed by the domestic upheavals in China. When I asked if the Tiananmen massacre affected the post, Wang replied, "Come on! It was not affected at all by Tiananmen. Your government is not so stupid as to interrupt something as important as this with politics," Li said. "Your president may deliver a speech, but covert action always transcends politics." As the Chinese say of the post, "politics is politics and business is business." They look on Project 851 as another straightforward business proposition.
Inside the project, uniformed Chinese military officers work with Americans both in uniform and in civilian clothing. The understanding is that those in civilian clothing are employees of the CIA and NSA and those in uniform are from the Army and from the various other military branches in the US.
The Chinese recruited to work at the post are required to be English speakers, and many of them were recruited by the Third Department of the PLA General Staff from the Luoyang PLA Foreign Language Institute, a very famous school. "I have several close friends who are there right now," Li said. "What is pitiful for these guys, both men and women, is that sometimes their marriages had to be arranged when they received the assignment, since once you are in the complex, if you are Chinese, you are not supposed to leave for a certain amount of time. If your marital status is not settled when you get the assignment, the organization finds a woman for you there to marry. That is one of the reasons why they recruit women as well as men for assignment at the base. A very good friend of mine, Liu Jian, a young officer from the Luoyang school, was assigned to Project 851 when he was still single. So, as part of his assignment, he was given a wife at the project. Also, your correspondence with anyone outside the complex had to be read, both incoming and outgoing mail, in order to maintain absolute secrecy about this project. And when you correspond with someone, of course, your mail carried a completely different and misleading return address."
This secret listening post, immune to the tragedies of politics and history, was a child of both the Sino-Vietnam War and the Iranian revolution.
Two other products of the war with Vietnam were an arms trading company, Poly Technologies, and a very profitable military venture in Yunnan province -- the manufacture and marketing of heroin.