Research & Translation by Adrian Chan-Wyles PhD
Author’s Note: The details I relate here, I consider a tragedy for humanity. I have accessed numerous Chinese and Russian language articles, and find that the ‘modern’ (capitalist) Russian language versions, although containing a core of fact, nevertheless are sometimes prone to exaggeration, political bias and racial prejudice. Communist China remains adamant that Soviet troops invaded their sovereign territory, and that this was part of a broader plan for the Soviet Union to invade and annex China. Although this may have appeared to have been the case, there is no evidence that this was actually the case at the time, despite numerous and widespread border disputes, which in reality involved only small numbers of soldiers on each side, and very low casuality rates. The capitalist West – led by the US – saw this division between two of the major Marxist-Leninist countries in the world – and set about driving a permanent wedge between the two. Communist China would be admitted to the UN in 1971 (the same year Nixon visited the country), with China and the US establishing full diplomatic relations in 1979 (the same year China’s PLA invaded Vietnam). However, the root problem of this situation historically originated with the arch-Trotskyite Nikita Khrushchev, who steered the USSR in the wrong dialectical direction in 1956 – a false path that would not only lead to the deaths of Soviet and Chinese soldiers, but ultimately the collapse of the USSR in 1991. Today, Communist China has regained its dialectical direction and continues on the path of Socialist Revolution. My personal view is that these border clashes should never have happened, and I feel a great sadness when examining the photographs of the casualties on both side. (ACW 7.7.2018)
Chinese language sources record that at 9am local time, on March 15th, 1969, Chinese PLA troops broadcasted a message into Soviet occupied territory which stated ‘Abandon Revisionism’, whilst Soviet Red Army troops broadcasted the counter-message into Chinese occupied territory of ‘It’s not too late. Think about it, you are the children of those who liberated China from the Japanese aggressors.’
In the Russian language, this place is known as ‘Damansky Island’ (острове Даманский), and in the Chinese language as ‘Zhenbao Island’ (珍宝岛 – Zhen Bao Dao), or ‘Precious Treasure Island’ (perhaps alluding to the rumoured great mineral wealth present in the surrounding countryside). Within Russian geography, Damansky Island lies in the wide Ussuri River around 100 miles south of Khabarovsk and about 200 miles north of Vladivostok, but within Chinese geography, Zhenbao Island is described as lying within Huilin County, Heilongjiang Province, Northeast China. These different (cultural) descriptions explain exactly the same relatively small island which as an area of just 0.74 square kilometers. Chinese language records indicate that this island was confirmed as belonging to China through the signing of the 1860 Sino-Russian Beijing Treaty by the Qing imperial government of China, and representatives of the Czarist government of Russia. However, according to international convention, the geographical boundary between China and Russia should run through the centre-line of the Ussuri River, but given that the Damansksy-Zhenbao Island lies more or less on that centre-line, the exact sovereignty of the area was questioned by the Russians, who were of the opinion that the demarcation line between China and Russia ran along the Chinese bank of the Ussari River only. If the Soviet view was accepted as correct, then China did not own the disputed island. The legal problem seemed to have hinged on the fact that Lenin had abolished all Czarist law in 1917, an act which rendered all Czarist treaties null and void. China’s view is that it has always owned Zhenbao Island, and that the 1860 Czarist Treaty simply ‘recognised’ that fact, but did not grant or bestow sovereignty. Therefore, even if the Czarist laws had been abolished, this did not alter the fact that China’s sovereignty still operated on Zhenbao Island. This claim was further strengthened by the fact that Lenin had stated that all disputed border areas were to be handed to China (a transfer of sovereignty that never actually happened, due to Lenin’s death in 1924, and the ever-changing political climate in China).
Although China technically owned the island, Soviet Border Guards had been patrolling the area since at least 1947. This followed the Red Army incursion into Northeast China at the behest of the Western Allies (in 1945) to clear the Japanese imperial army out of the area. Therefore, Manchuria (together with much of the captured Japanese military supplies and hardware) was handed-over to Mao Zedong and the Chinese Communists, prior to the Communist Party of China ascending to political power over virtually all of Mainland China in 1949. There probably would never have occurred a border dispute between the USSR and Communist China if Khrushchev had not demonized the political career of Joseph Stalin in 1956. Mao Zedong took exception to this, and declared Khrushchev a ‘revisionist’ (which he undoubtedly was). This led to the situation where Mao Zedong and the Communist Party of China (CPC), as close allies of Joseph Stalin, were viewed by many within the international arena as representing the true or correct Marxist-Leninist path. Indeed, whilst displaying portraits of Mao Zedong, Chinese PLA troops often entered the combat zone holding-up pictures of Lenin and Stalin, implying that it was they (and not the opposing Soviet troops) that were now fighting for World Revolution and the emancipation of the oppressed people of the world! Mao Zedong was of the opinion that he was following the original path as established by the USSR, and that Khrushchev was leading the Soviet Union in a false direction.
As the Ussari River was frozen over on March 2nd, 1969, Chinese PLA troops were able to cross the ice on foot and deploy on Damansky-Zhenbao Island. Soviet Border Guards moved forward to meet the Chinese forces, and following a brief dialogue, a fire-fight broke-out with casualties suffered on both sides. The Chinese language sources dispute this essentially ‘Russian’ account, and state that their troops were already on Damansky-Zhenbao Island (patrolling sovereign Chinese territory), when the Soviet Border Guards took advantage of the frozen river and mobilised against the Chinese presence. This is how both sides claim the other invaded ‘their’ territory, and then confidently generate a historical narrative of pursuing a righteous defence in the face of an evil invader. It has been noted that ever since the early 1960’s there had been numerous border disputes between China and Russia, all the way to the west of Xinjiang Province, the borders of Mongolia, and of course, Manchuria to the east, but it was only in regard to the skirmish on Damansky-Zhenbao Island, that the Soviets made a point of a) meticulously recording all the events, and b) making a concerted effort to broadcast these details to the rest of the world. As Khrushchev had left office in 1966, it was General Secretary Leonid Brezhnev who was now over-seeing events and giving the final permission for policy direction.
Fighting would continue from the 2nd of March, until the 17th of March, 1969 (with a further skirmish happening on the 21st of March). Chinese language sources state that the USSR deployed 100 soldiers throughout the conflict, whilst the Chinese Communists committed 300 soldiers. The Russians suffered 29 killed, 1 missing and 62 wounded, whilst the Chinese suffered 58 killed and 94 wounded. Whilst the Chinese troops were lightly armed, it is reported that the Soviets used armoured personnel carriers, tanks and the limited use of air-strikes. Modern Russian accounts are peculiar in as much as they often contain not only Western-style anti-Soviet opinions, but also anti-Chinese sentiment that can only be described as ‘racist’ in nature. As Russia is now a capitalist country, it is expected that its modern historical narratives will be re-written to fall inline with bourgeois European expectations and sentiment. However, I was hoping that the anti-Chinese racism I was witnessing in these texts – which routinely refers to the Chinese people being under nourished in appearance, fanatic or deficient in their thinking processes, and pursuing a corrupt or distorted political direction – was only a phenomenon of contemporary Russian writing, but Gerald H Corr, in his 1974 book entitled ‘The Chinese Red Army’ has this to say about the ample Soviet reports of this incident at the time:
‘The suggestion implicit in the Russian version of the Damansky fighting is that the Soviet Guards were killed as a result of Chinese deceit and trickery, the sort of thing one would expect from an Oriental. Moscow’s propaganda was directed mainly to Westerners and it was presented to believe in stories of Asian duplicity. That they failed to evoke the expected sympathy was due to a number of considerations and not least to the Chinese handling of their own publicity and propaganda.’
Gerard H Corr, The Chinese Red Army, Osprey, (1974), Page 119
Gerard Corr has produced a very readable book that considering its age, is relatively free of Western Cold War bias. Whilst examining the Damansky Island Incident, and in the days before the internet, Corr had no access to primary Russian or Chinese language sources, and had to rely upon Soviet news broadcasts, official Chinese Communist rebuttals, and Western analysis upon the matter. However, his lack of background knowledge lead to two mistakes. Corr assumes (following the historical imaginings of Harrison Salisbury) that Mao Zedong and Joseph Stalin did not like one another. A close examination of Soviet and Communist Chinese texts reveal a very different story, with both leaders (and both countries) expressing internationalist and highly fraternal praise for one another’s support, and a committment to counter worldwide racism (which has its roots in the capitalist division of labour).
Corr also makes the incorrect statement that Soviet troops were ‘rude’ whilst entering and ‘Liberating’ Manchuria during late 1945. There is no evidence for this in contemporary Chinese language accounts, on the contrary, Chinese people were very grateful that the Soviet Red Army had entered China to eradicate the imperial Japanese army, and put a stop to the atrocities performed by its notorious Unit 731. Although it was true that Khrushchev had rhetorically led the Soviet government in an odd and unusual direction, it is also true that the Soviet System itself, continued to function in its usual progressive manner, with little or no deviation away from Marxist-Leninism. This demonstrates the robustness of the Soviet System and its ability to adapt and respond to differing conditions. Khrushchev left office in 1966, and was replaced by Brezhnev, who exercised a gentle releasing of some of the previous anti-Stalin attitudes witnessed in recent years. Meanwhile, in China there was the ‘Great Proletariat Cultural Revolution’ which saw Mao Zedong lead the youth in an effort to uproot reactionary and bourgeois elements still existing within Chinese culture.
According to Russian sources, the Chinese Communists accused the USSR of entering upon a revisionist phase of ‘Socialist Imperialism’, evident in Hungary (1956), and Czechoslovakia (1968). As the Chinese language accounts state (that in their view) the Soviet Border Guards ‘invaded’ Zhenbao Island, this assertion has a ring of truth about it. On the other hand, the Soviets talk of a well-planned ‘ambush’ initiated by the Chinese PLA troops. One story I have found in contemporary Russian language accounts appears a false, is the idea that one (or two) wounded Soviet soldiers were subjected to ‘torture’ when captured alive by Chinese PLA troops, and their bodies mutilated when dead. As the area was remote, wide-open and frozen, it logically follows that any such action would have been clearly visible to the Soviets who could have taken immediate military action. A variant of this story holds that a captured Soviet POW was taken into China where he was tortured and beaten to death by the Chinese populace. This would have involved travelling hundreds of miles to the nearest population centre, and for Chinese people to behave in a culturally inappropriate manner. Russian sources state that the KGB Archives contain photographic evidence of this torture and murder, but after an extensive search on the Russian language internet, I have not been able to find any evidence, although it is true that the Soviets and Chinese do seem to have extensively photographed all the events. As a consequence, there are many close-up photograph of deceased Soviet (and Chinese) soldiers killed in fire-fights, but none appearing tortured or murdered.
Another story worth mentioning that has gained some traction in the West, is that of unarmed scuffles between the supposedly physically stronger Soviets and the weaker Chinese PLA soldiers. China has an ancient tradition of martial arts used upon the feudalistic battlefield until at least 1911, and upon the modern battlefield thereafter. As can be discerned with the Chinese PLA domination over Western soldiers upon the Korean battlefield (1950-1953), there is no reason to suspect that PLA Border Guards tasked with protecting China’s borders, would not be of the highest calibre. It is unlikely that Soviet soldiers dominated their Chinese counterparts. It is significant that Russian language sources state that the Chinese deployed a different regiment at one point, and that these ‘special’ Chinese soldiers did dominate the battlefield with regards to unarmed combat. However, the implication appears to be that these Chinese soldiers had been previously trained by Soviet advisors (and had probably learned ‘Systema’). One highlight of the conflict saw the Chinese PLA knockout a modern T-62 Soviet tank which subsequently ‘sank’ through the ice when the Soviets attempted to destroy it. (The Chinese PLA later retrieved this tank and it now sits on display in Beijing’s Military Museum of the Chinese People’s Revolution.
The Soviet Union de facto allowed Communist China to occupy the island after March 17th, 1969, with the Chinese PLA building a small (permanent) observation building on the island during August, 1969. The island would not be formally recognised as ‘Chinese’ until the Gorbachev years – when he was busy dismantling the USSR from within during the 1980’s. Zhenbao Island officially became ‘Chinese’ in 1991.
The Damansky-Zhenbao Island Incident lasted for just 15 days from March 2nd to March 17th, 1969, but fighting continued to happen until at least the 21st of March. From the Chinese perspective, the events unfurled in the following manner:
March 2nd, 1969: The Chinese PLA carried-out a routine ‘patrol’ of Zhenbao Island, with their forces traversing the small island. The Soviet Border Guards deployed onto the island and surrounded the Chinese grouping. Following an exchange of dialogue, both sides exchanged fire, experienced casualties and took-cover. The Chinese PLA forces were lightly armed, and eventually pushed off the island by Soviet rocket launchers, tanks and Armoured Personnel Carriers (APC). There was even suggestions that the Soviet Airforce attacked the area. The Soviets rapidly ‘mined’ the island and prepared to cross into Mainland China. On March 15th, the Chinese PLA launched a small-scale offensive onto the island and knocked-out a Soviet T-62 by damaging one of its tracks with an anti-tank missile.
On March 17th, 1969, the Soviets launched an offensive trying to rescue their striken tank. However, Chinese PLA resistance hindered this process, and so the Soviets tried to blow the tank up on March 21st, but the ice broke and the tank sank into the water. On April 27th, the Chinese PLA secretly sent a Naval diving crew to salvage the tank at night. The tank was recovered and initially towed to the 6409 factory of the People’s Liberation Army at Fushun (formerly the 6409 State-Owned Tank Overhaul Plant of the People’s Liberation Army) for further restoration, following which it was then pulled to Shenyang for a short stay. It was then pulled to Beijing in early June, 1969. Within Chinese language sources, this event is referred to as the ‘Zhenbao Island, Self-Defense, Counter-Attack Incident’.
Chinese Language Source Articles:
Russian Language Source Articles:
English Language Reference:
Gerard H Corr: The Chinese Red Army, Osprey, (1974), Confrontations with Russia: 1969-1073, Pages 112-140