'It's been a long time since anybody mentioned war'

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 18 February, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 February, 2009, 12:00am

Thirty years after China's war with Vietnam, trade has replaced fighting and the former battlegrounds have been transformed into bustling markets, writes Ivan Zhai in the second of a three-part series

When the People's Liberation Army trucks first took Zhang Qingqiang and other new recruits to the heavily militarised Sino-Vietnamese border in Pingxiang, in the Guangxi Zhuang Autonomous Region, in 1986, he had no idea just how life-changing the experience would turn out to be.

Two decades later, Mr Zhang still lives in the city but now earns his living exporting oranges across what were once the enemy lines. With the 41-year-old's face deeply tanned by the subtropical climate, and the fluent Vietnamese he uses to talk to the workers packing hundreds of boxes of oranges into a truck, Mr Zhang could easily pass for one of the people he was pointing a gun at more than 20 years ago.

Yesterday marked the 30th anniversary of the 1979 Sino-Vietnamese War. Except for the many landmines lying below the surface in the thick forests nearby, there are few reminders of the conflict today. Businesspeople and cross-border travellers have replaced soldiers, and markets have become the new battlefields.

'It has been a long time since anybody mentioned war here,' Mr Zhang said.

Mr Zhang left the PLA in 1990 and started his export business four years later. In the mid-1990s people had to carry fruit on their backs over the border. Gradually, the roads were paved and new merchants arrived, turning Pingxiang into the mainland's biggest cross-border trade centre with Vietnam.

Mr Zhang says that last year alone he handled at least 120 tonnes of fruit every day. Pointing to the hive of activity at Puzhai township's border fruit market, Mr Zhang said it was good to forget the war and focus on economic co-operation.

Puzhai, which is part of Pingxiang, specialises in fruit and padauk timber furniture, while nearby Nonghuai has a thriving trade in commodities and household appliances.

In the first seven months of last year, Pingxiang registered US$580 million in trade volume, up 160 per cent compared to the corresponding period the previous year, according to Xinhua. Between 2004 and 2007, 4.69 million passengers used its Youyiguan port, according to the municipal government, with passenger numbers increasing by nearly 30 per cent every year.

Trade has a long tradition in Pingxiang. Li Yong, 73, of Aikou village, said most villagers were trading with the Vietnamese before 1949 but for about 30 years after that they were forced to smuggle after Beijing banned capitalism. Conditions began to relax in the mid-1980s, allowing Guangxi to reopen the border markets. 'But we did not wait so long. Right after the 1979 war, our villagers started to do business again,' Mr Li said.

He said that although people living in Aikou were still impoverished at that time, Vietnam seemed even worse. 'They needed everything - bowls, plates, torches and cloth,' he said. The biggest challenge for the villagers was avoiding the tens of thousands of landmines. He said that about a dozen people were killed or injured trying to smuggle goods across the fields, which presented a bigger danger than the war itself.

'About a dozen bombs fell in the village area a few days after the outbreak of the war but just one person was killed. All the battlefields were on the Vietnamese side,' he said.

Mr Li never left his hometown but he twice witnessed troops pass by his front door - once in the 1960s when PLA soldiers were sent to help the Vietnamese communists fight the United States military and then again in 1979 to fight the 'socialist brothers and comrades' they had been willing to die for.

The villagers of Aikou said they did not understand why there were two wars in just 15 years but knew full well the conflicts' impact on their lives and trade.

As governments on both sides of the border have worked to demine the area, Mr Zhang, who moved his family to Puzhai years ago, said he had come to regard Pingxiang as his second hometown. Having first come to Guangxi with the military, Mr Zhang is an example of someone who has turned his sword into a ploughshare, staying on for a better life. 'My business has been increasing a lot in the past 10 years. Merchants believe the co-operation with Southeast Asia will bring us a better trading situation.'