Refugee Policy and Foreign Policy: Examining Policy Linkage in Chinese Relations with North Korea, Myanmar, and Vietnam

By Jasmine Lam
2013, Vol. 5 No. 10 | pg. 4/6 |

China & Vietnam

In juxtaposition to the North Korean and Burmese cases, China’s treatment towards Vietnamese refugees featured an open-door and a comprehensive resettlement program, which succeeded in integrating the refugees into Chinese society. Sino-Vietnamese relations went from a period of comradeship from the founding of the PRC, to increasing strain throughout the decades. During the 1970s, when the exodus of refugees into China occurred, relations were at its worst. The deterioration of relations led to eventual Chinese invasion into Vietnam in 1979. Against this backdrop, Chinese policy of refugee admission reflects extremely fraught bilateral relations, marking this case study at the low-level of cooperation end of the spectrum.

Historic Overview and Sino-Vietnamese Relations

Relations between China and Vietnam have fluctuated between times of comradeship and periods of hostility. Historically, China had attempted to exert influence and power over Vietnam, while Vietnam in return has strived to protect and maintain its independence.106 In the 1950s, when Vietnam wrestled for independence from French colonization during the First Indochina War, the PRC offered support to the Viet Minh to defeat the French.107 Their joint struggle against imperialism created an alliance between the two as “brotherly comrades.”108 According to the Chinese scholar Guo Ming, the term the “golden era” was used to describe Sino-Vietnam relations between 1949-1954.109 However, differences between the Chinese and Vietnamese began to surface during post-war negotiations.110 While Vietnam wanted to push for settlement terms that would include an immediate nation-wide plebiscite, China felt Vietnam should be more modest in its goals and accept the division of Vietnam at the 17th parallel.111 Chinese behaviour at negotiations built upon Vietnam’s historic sensitivity that China wishes to keep Vietnam weak in order for China to maintain its power over Vietnam.112 This perception will likely continue to influence Vietnam’s behaviour in the upcoming decades.

Nonetheless, Sino-Vietnam relations remained close from the late-50s into the 60s.113 Between 1956 and 1963, China provided North Vietnam a total of 320 million yuan in military aid.114 Similar large-scale assistance was delivered during the Second Indochina War between 1965-1973, also known as the Vietnam War. At this time, China and Vietnam united to safeguard communism and resist expansion of Western influences. This sentiment was expressed through PRC’s Chairman Mao Zedong’s statement that China would offer “unconditional support” to Vietnamese Communists.115 Nearing the end of the 1960s, China was involved in construction and maintenance of defence works and infrastructure in North Vietnam, as well as the provision of military equipment and civil materials.116 Meanwhile, the regime of North Vietnam worked to preserve measures of independence by disallowing Beijing to interfere in Viet Minh’s decision-making.117 However, China continued to view Sino-Vietnam relations in the lens of Chinese superiority, and demanded Vietnam’s recognition of China’s upheld position.118

In early 1970s, relations between China and Vietnam began to deteriorate when China downsized its aid pledges to Vietnam. As Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai described, China’s attitude went from providing Vietnam “whatever is necessary,” to give “China a break!”119 Both domestic and international factors contributed to this shift.120 The main point of contention for Vietnam arose to be China’s delivery of aid packages. In 1971-72, supplies and materials from the Soviet Union and other countries were transported through China to be delivered to Vietnam. China had intended to partake in this process in order to create conflict between Soviet Union and Vietnam by attempting to demonstrate the Soviet Union’s inability to fulfil its promises.121 However, this strategy backfired as Vietnam saw China as the source of ineptness when transfer of goods was delayed.122 On the other hand, China felt Vietnam was being unappreciative and ungrateful for China’s previous unconditional support in the past decades, as Chinese assistance have totalled over 20$ billion.123

Up until the unification of Vietnam under the Socialist Republic of Vietnam in 1975, relations remained tense and worsened to the point of military confrontation by the end of the decade. China persisted on its policy to reduce aid towards Vietnam, and this was damaging to Vietnam particularly during its efforts to engage in post-war reconstruction. In April 1975, China made the decision to replace aid programs with purely bilateral trade transactions, refuse new proposed projects, and postpone construction of the remaining 80 projects.124 This pushed Vietnam to grow closer to the Soviet Union for assistance, to the dismay of China. In June 1978, Vietnam joined COMECON (Council for Mutual Economic Assistance), the economic bloc under the leadership of the Soviet Union. Two months later, Vietnam signed a treaty of peace and friendship with the Soviet Union, formalizing alliance between the two states. These actions clearly stood in defiance of China’s wishes, as China wanted to contain Soviet influence in the region.125 Consequently, this further strained Sino-Vietnamese relations.

Meanwhile, in late 1970s, Vietnam and China clashed on their policies towards the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia. Vietnam viewed the Khmer Rouge regime under Pol Pot as a threat to its security and development efforts, and sought a regime change through support to the Kampuchea National United Front for National Salvation. In contrast, China began to endorse the Khmer Rouge regime in 1978, leading to increased confrontation between China and Vietnam. Heightened tensions eventually resulted in China’s invasion of Vietnam in February 1979, the largest military operation the China’s People’s Liberation Army has undertaken since the Korean War.126 China’s objectives in its invasion were to first, discredit the Soviet Union as a reliable ally for security, and second, contain Vietnam’s ambitions in Southeast Asia.127 By March, China announced its withdrawal. The military campaign successfully convinced Vietnam to withdraw from Cambodia, and discredited the Soviet Union as an ally.128 However, the consequences of this war resulted in a freezing of diplomatic relations between China and Vietnam until normalization in 1991.

Refugee Treatment

China followed a policy that welcomed refugees from Vietnam into Chinese society under a comprehensive resettlement program. After the establishment of the SRV, there were two major outflows of so-called “boat people” from Vietnam. In 1977, the first wave exited Vietnam as a result of a series of natural disasters, lack of employment opportunities, and the ongoing war with the Pol Pot regime.129 This group headed mainly towards Thailand, Philippines, Singapore, Indonesia, Hong Kong, Japan, and Australia. The second wave began in mid-1978, and the majority of this group constituted the Hoa population, who are ethnically Chinese. This group immigrated to Vietnam decades ago, and have been in Vietnam for generations. Under the Republic of Vietnam between 1954-1975, this group was treated as Vietnamese citizens.130 The Hoa had traditionally dominated private trading and commercial generations, especially in the south of Vietnam. After the socialist regime came to power in 1975, the Hoa community began to face discrimination. As the government implemented socialist policies in Vietnam, they found that Hoa private businesses represented obstacles to socialist ideals. In March 1978, the Vietnamese government announced the abolishment of “all trade and business operations of bourgeois tradesmen.”131 As a result, 30,000 larger private businesses, which were mostly run by the Hoa, were closed down.132

The Hoa population who fled into China are recognized as refugees, as they faced both discriminatory economic and political policies on the basis of their identity. Besides the aforementioned changes in economic policies, political motives were also seen to have influenced Vietnamese actions against the Hoa community, as official Vietnamese and Chinese relations soured in the late 1970s. The Chinese government perceived discriminatory policies as direct attack on the Chinese community in Vietnam. Moreover, some say Vietnam was attempting to unify the country through ousting foreign elements, that is those who may not adhere to Vietnam’s socialist policies.133 For example, Vietnam’s New Economic Zone policies involved relocation of potential dissidents and urban dwellers to rural areas under harsh conditions.134 In addition, an atmosphere of fear was created amongst the Hoa community in Vietnam, while both Chinese and Vietnamese sides accused each other of instigating rumours. These rumours included predictions that China would go to war with Vietnam, or the Vietnamese government would begin a massacre of Sino-Vietnamese.135 Sino-Vietnamese, minorities, and dissidents were also advised or forced to leave, and their properties were confiscated and sold.136 In summation, both economic and political discrimination render those who fled Vietnam as refugees.

The exodus from Vietnam amounted to 250,000 refugees entering China by the spring of 1978, the entirety of which China has successfully integrated into the Chinese society through its resettlement programs. In fact, China attempted to actively assist Vietnamese refugees’ arrival in China. In June of 1978, China sent two ships to pick up refugees at Vietnamese ports, although Vietnamese authorities never allowed these ships to dock.137 Nonetheless, this signalled China’s willingness to accommodate refugees. Refugee arrivals paced at an average of 10,000 a month, testing China’s capacity.138 There is limited literature documenting China’s resettlement program, and its comprehensiveness was not recognized internationally until 2007.139 Tom Lam’s article provides the most detailed account of China’s programs in the Guangxi province, where the initial reception of 220,000 refugees took place. Upon arrival, local authorities provided refugees with free meals and temporary shelter.140 By 1980, most border camps were cleared out, and of the refugees, 110,000 were later relocated to the Guangdong province, and 100,000 remained in the Guangxi province.141 Refugees were mainly given work in the sectors of farming, fishing, and local industry under state-owned organizations.142 New farms and fishing villages were built to accommodate newcomers.143 In addition, authorities attempted to match refugee skillsets to corresponding jobs. For example, refugees who were schoolteachers were encouraged to continue teaching in China.144 China’s resettlement programs concluded in 1988. Overall, the program was a success, especially due to direct Chinese government involvement and continued official assistance.145 China’s warm policy stands in contrast to Chinese policies for North Korean and Burmese refugees. This Chinese behaviour also corresponds with strained bilateral relations, as proposed in the paper’s hypothesis.

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