Olga Dror is an associate professor of history at Texas A&M University and the author of the forthcoming book “Making Two Vietnams: War and Youth Identity, 1965-75.” This article draws on material that will appear in an essay in the spring 2018 issue of the Journal of Cold War Studies.
Originally posted here.
In December 1966, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam, or North Vietnam, and the People’s Republic of China signed an agreement to establish schools for North Vietnamese children in China, with China providing the facilities, funds and equipment. America’s bombing campaign over North Vietnam was in high gear, and Hanoi wanted to move its students to a safe place.
What is truly remarkable about this cross-border educational effort was that it began in the midst of the Chinese Cultural Revolution, which started in May 1966 and destroyed the Chinese educational system (and left the Chinese economy in shambles). But the Chinese were willing to carve out space for the North Vietnamese because doing so served a higher, geopolitical purpose: competing with the Soviet Union for leadership of the global communist movement.
The Chinese program, known as Project 92, covered school construction and teaching equipment, as well as funds for daily expenses (the “92” refers to Sept. 2, 1945, the day Vietnam declared independence from France). One facility, the School of Sept. 2, was established specifically for children who had been relocated from South Vietnam. Another school, for military cadets, bore the name of Nguyen Van Troi, a young Saigonese who in May 1963 attempted to assassinate the American defense secretary, Robert McNamara, during his visit to South Vietnam, and who was executed by firing squad. Because the Chinese military was less affected by the Cultural Revolution than its civilian educational system, the military led the construction efforts.
The schools were more than just basic educational facilities; their goal was to create, in a safe location, “an advanced socialist school” to train the next generation of Vietnamese. They were to instill revolutionary morality and the socialist spirit. And pupils were to become willing and enthusiastic fighters when their time came to join the army. Teachers had to teach the Five Precepts of Uncle Ho, and they had to inculcate the North Vietnamese agenda, to make sure the children understood that it was because of the American enemy that their country was divided into two, that their families were broken and that their homeland was being destroyed. In short, the objective was for the children to be eager for the government to call them up to fight the Americans.
In December 1967, three schools were united into the Vietnamese Southern School District, and the new system was effectively inaugurated. Most of the construction was finished by August 1968, and both sides met to discuss future cooperation, especially the need to strengthen the political education of the pupils, combining theory and practice and incorporating an exchange of experiences gained during the Cultural Revolution in China and the anti-American war in Vietnam. It was also decided that when the Vietnamese returned, they could take with them all the teaching equipment as well as weapons (no weapons were mentioned in the previous agreements).
The system included seven schools with more than 2,000 pupils, cadres and teachers. Many of the pupils were children of cadres and party members killed during the wars against the French and the Americans. Pupils were brought from different areas of Vietnam, from the South as well as from the North. They reportedly represented around 30 nationalities, although the nationalities were not specified. They arrived at different times, they had different levels of education and they were different ages.
The program had its shortcomings, though. The schools were concentrated on a limited piece of land (less than a square kilometer) that lacked sufficient classroom space, as well as sufficient space for housing, outside activities, production or social activities. Moreover, despite their political pedigrees, the students came with a frustratingly broad range of political convictions. One group followed the Hanoi line. This group was “in the care of the Party and of Uncle and that’s why they had hatred toward the Americans and their lackeys” — in other words, South Vietnamese anti-communists — “who sell the country.” Pupils in this group were “connected to socialism, felt absolute trust in Uncle Ho, and in the Workers Party of Vietnam.” On the other side of the spectrum, there were pupils who had experienced, in one report, the “putrid American influence” and who lacked discipline, a sense of national identity and love for the nation.
In addition to these difficulties, there was a shortage of teachers, and those who were there, according to an assessment by the North Vietnamese Ministry of Education, had very low educational levels. Many teachers wanted to return home. Many of them did not have revolutionary morale and thus made serious mistakes, such as illicit liaisons among male and female cadres and violations of the principles of socialist education, like hitting or harshly disciplining students.
Administrators were a problem, too. Many of them were still “under the old conventions and backward concepts,” according to one analysis, that superseded revolutionary notions of friendship, love and service. Their bad attitudes, according to the Ministry of Education, prevailed over their commitments to the party and its youth organizations. Material problems aggravated ideological difficulties. Living quarters were overcrowded and did not meet hygienic requirements. Classrooms were not sufficiently equipped. Sometimes children of very different ages had to study together. Teaching materials arrived slowly.
China had three main considerations in hosting an extension of the Vietnamese educational system. First was solidarity with a protégé. That feeling arose from the close alliance between the Chinese and Vietnamese communists during the war against France, when the Chinese provided the means for continuing the war and the Vietnamese responded with gratitude and emulation. Chinese communists saw the achievements of the Vietnamese communists as an extension of their own revolutionary agenda.
Second was competition with the Soviet Union for leadership of the international communist movement and for influence in what were then called “third world” countries, which included Vietnam. The Sino-Soviet competition developed in the late 1950s and continued through the 1960s. Giving their Vietnamese allies a safe haven for schools just across the border was something that the Soviet Union was not in a position to provide to the Vietnamese, and this created a venue for nurturing both practical assistance and a spirit of sympathetic patronage.
Finally, the program offered an opportunity to support a war that kept the United States militarily occupied beyond China’s borders — rendering America less of a threat to China itself.
Despite its difficulties, the system persevered until mid-1975, when it was terminated and all students, teachers and administrators returned to Vietnam. By 1975, North Vietnam was on the verge of conquering the south, and the need for educational facilities that were out of harm’s way was lessening. But Sino-Vietnamese relations were souring as well. Hanoi’s final push toward Saigon was fueled by Soviet assistance, and the consolidation of communist rule across Vietnam turned an ally of China into a threat. While it is possible that when Vietnam and China went to war in 1978 there were some Vietnamese soldiers who had once studied on Chinese soil, there are nevertheless many who continue to cherish their study years in China.