Tea Leaf Nation

China's Little Secret

Beijing wants people to forget the Sino-Vietnamese War.

On Feb. 17, the 35th anniversary of the Sino-Vietnamese War, Chinese online news portal Sina released a patriotic slideshow of historical photos to commemorate the date. The text accompanying the images called the war the Defensive Counterattack War Against Vietnam, its official name in China, and insisted that "Vietnamese forces repeatedly provoked" their Chinese opponent. But the article is noteworthy not for what it says, but that it existed at all. The images attracted more than 8,400 shares and 1,800 comments on Sina Weibo, China's popular microblogging platform, with one young woman wondering why Chinese mainstream media "almost never mention this period in history."

She was not exaggerating: China's state-owned media remained almost completely silent on the anniversary of the nearly monthlong conflict, which ended with no clear victor, and was the most recent war fought by China. (The war began after Deng Xiaoping, China's then-paramount leader, promised the newly friendly United States that he would "spank" the Soviet-backed Vietnamese regime for sending troops to Cambodia to topple the genocidal Khmer Rouge government.) Recent articles on Vietnam in People's Daily, the Chinese Communist Party mouthpiece that essentially declared war on its southern neighbor with an editorial on Feb. 16, 1979, lacked any mention of the conflict. A Jan. 21 People's Daily article about anti-Chinese feelings in Vietnam avoided mention of any armed tussle between the two countries in the late 20th century, instead blaming the negative sentiment on Vietnamese's "sour" and "contradictory" attitude toward historical Chinese cultural influences and current economic dominance. Another People's Daily piece from Feb. 13 profiled the bustling town of Mong Cai on the eastern Chinese-Vietnamese border, which cleared over $2.6 billion worth of import and export goods in 2013, without mentioning that it was the scene of fierce fighting 35 years ago. 

But Chinese military enthusiasts, armchair historians, and veterans have not forgotten about the war. Hot debates about the conflict still rage on in corners of the Chinese Internet, notwithstanding official silence. Many Internet users commenting on the war see China's casus belli as illegitimate, even as they honor the departed young combatants -- thousands of Chinese died, though the exact numbers are unknown -- who netizens feel were sent into a proverbial meat grinder. One user asked whether it was worth it to "sacrifice so many young lives to support the Khmer Rouge butchers." Another remembered feeling excited as a high school boy listening to the radio as shelling began, but continued, "looking back, the war was totally unjustified." For their part, ardent nationalists writing on Chinese social media often downplay China's relationship with the Khmer Rouge, and instead attribute the casus belli to Vietnam's poor treatment of ethnic Chinese living there, its alleged provocations along shared borders with China, and possible expansionist tendencies to consolidate Cambodia into a greater power in Indochina under the USSR's backing. "What's justice?" one nationalist asked rhetorically on Sina Weibo. "Whatever protects our motherland's interests is justice!"

Vietnam also suppresses memories of the war. On Feb. 17, the Vietnamese government deployed aerobic dancers to break up anti-Chinese protests in the capital city of Hanoi, while on Feb. 12 U.S. outlet Voice of America quoted an anonymous senior Vietnamese editor as saying the country's watchdog issued "confidential instructions" to restrict coverage of the 35th anniversary of the war. China and Vietnam normalized relations in 1991 after the collapse of the USSR -- Communist Vietnam's longtime patron -- and Vietnam's withdrawal from Cambodia. Bilateral trade and economic cooperation have boomed since then, though tensions have risen recently because of territorial disputes over the Paracel and Spratly Islands in the South China Sea.

Many Chinese media outlets covered the anti-Chinese protests in Vietnam, but not that of Chinese Vietnam war veterans agitating for compensation. On Feb. 13, one Weibo user posted photos of a group of veterans holding up flags in Foshan, a large city in southern Guangdong province, wrote that police had kept close watch on participants, which he claimed numbered more than 1,600. According to a blog post written by a self-identified Beijing reporter and posted on Sina, a few dozen veterans gathered in front of a government building in central Hunan province on Feb. 17, complaining that they had been "abandoned" and shortchanged in veterans benefits. The blog post also shows a banner, with sadly ironic text. "The martyrs who gave their life defending their sacred territory," it reads, "will never be forgotten."    

AFP/Getty Images

Tea Leaf Nation

OK, Computer

Specialized dating sites are helping lovelorn Chinese Muslims find their match.

IYuani.com, a dating site whose name combines the Chinese words for "Islam" and "destiny," and which boasts more than 13,000 registered users, features two default cartoon avatars. Males receive a bearded young man in a white cap, smiling confidently, while females get to use a demure young woman in a pink hijab and long-sleeved robe. Those wishing to register as new users are greeted with a warning that iYuani "is a serious, pure, sincere Muslim marriage/friendship site." If a user is "not sincere," the note respectfully asks them not to bother. But the profile photos on iYuani, almost two-thirds of which are men, tell a less traditional story: The men's photos show them clean-shaven, wearing T-shirts or sweaters, while the women are mostly without headscarves, some showing off their bare shoulders. In other words, they appear heavily Sinicized. That's because the site caters to Hui Muslims, many of whom are virtually indistinguishable in speech and dress from millions of ordinary young men and women in urban China.

That doesn't mean they aren't different: Many Hui still seek to marry within their ranks, despite the fact that they are widely dispersed across China, numbering only 10 million out of a population of 1.3 billion. But the Internet is coming to the rescue, as online Hui dating sites have arisen over the past few years to help some of China's urban Muslims find their matches. "The Internet links major Hui communities in every city," said Haiyun Ma, a professor at Frostburg State University in Maryland specializing in Muslims in China and a Hui Chinese himself. As a result, "it is easier for young Hui to find spouses" than it used to be.

Easier, but not easy. Unlike China's 10 million Uighurs -- a Turkic people who mostly live in northwest China's Xinjiang Autonomous Region and comprise most of the rest of China's Muslim population -- the Hui vary greatly in their observance of Muslim traditions, and even knowledge about the Islamic faith. Some Hui complain that dietary restrictions are almost impossible to follow in get-togethers with schoolmates and colleagues; others proudly aver that they would not even walk into a non-halal restaurant; others feel no kinship to the Hui religion or accompanying customs at all. One young Hui woman in Beijing wrote on the popular social network Douban that she wished to find a Hui boyfriend, but when one suitor offered "to read her a section of the Quran every night," she bolted.

Even sites aimed at Chinese Muslims can't solve the underlying demographic obstacles. On 2muslim.com, a matchmaking-focused site which appears to be designed to attract Hui and calls itself "the biggest Chinese-speaking Muslim community" in China (although that could not be confirmed), one 24-year-old designer claimed he wanted to find a "devout" girlfriend in the southwestern city of Chengdu who would "know how to pray properly at a minimum." Another user advised him that that such a person surely does not exist in Chengdu, a city of 7 million that includes only 20,000 Hui.

Crossing ethnic boundaries is one solution to the relative paucity of Hui, but a post on aimu5.com, a dating site with more than 13,000 users, details how hard that can be. "Aimu" literally means "love Muslim," and the site, which calls itself the "best Hui marriage site," offers forums including the "wishing pond," the "feeling diary," and the "love clinic." One Aimu user, a college-educated divorcé, wrote that his first love had been a Han Chinese girl. They had dated for four years, he wrote, until his parents strongly recommended that he leave her and marry a Hui instead. "Marriage isn't a poem, and it's not a painting," the user advised; in the end, he wrote, it's best to follow parental guidance and only marry Hui.

That focus on ethnicity is not unusual on Aimu, which, unlike many other such sites, requires every user to give his or her ethnicity and displays that information on each dating profile next to the name. (Chinese ID cards feature the ethnicity of the bearer: There are 56 sanctioned ethnicities in China, with Han Chinese comprising 92 percent of the population.) One young woman living in eastern Anhui province posted on Douban that she was anxious to preserve her Hui identity, even though she admitted that she has only been to mosque once in her life, while her family has not observed the holy fasting month of Ramadan since her grandparents' generation. "What can we do to continue the essence of our culture?" she asked.

The question has no definitive answer, but patience seems to help. One self-identified Hui calling himself Lü Zhibo wrote that he had posted a "seeking marriage" ad on the China Muslim Youth Club back in 2009. The site appears to have been founded in Beijing in 2007, and boasts more than 33,000 users; posts seeking marriage or friendship regularly get dozens of comments and hundreds of views. That site, also aimed at Hui, is more serious in tone than its peers -- even the section for friend or spouse-seekers is populated with links to Islam-related news, faith, and literature. Registration is time consuming and appears rigorous, although this author, neither Chinese nor Hui, was able to wriggle through after three days.

For Lü, the long wait proved worthwhile. More than two years after his initial post, he met a young Muslim woman online; in December 2013, he posted their wedding photos. The attractive couple posed for glamour shots with strong Muslim motifs from faraway lands -- one shot has him in a white thawb (a type of robe popular in the Arabic countries) and her in a black abaya, a robe-like overgarment. Another has him in a golden turban and her in a long embroidered red gown. Along with the photos, Lü wrote, "Praise be to Allah; praise be to Allah's mercy."

iYuani.com/Fair Use