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Bear’s Teeth, Dragon’s Claws:

A 40th Anniversary Commemoration of the Manchurian War


by Chris Oakley


(based on the "Venceremos!" series by the same author)


Part 9



Summary: In the first eight chapters of this series we recalled the runup to the Manchurian War; the course of the war itself; and the aftereffects of the war on human history. In this segment we’ll review the first Chechen civil war and China’s growth as an economic power in the mid-to-late ‘90s.




Didn’t We Just Leave This Party?: 1993-1996

With the Soviet Union and the Cold War both fading into memory, most Americans, like their Russian brethren, turned their focus from international crises to domestic issues. Thus, the first Chechnyan civil war didn’t get as much play in the US media as it might have under different circumstances. For Russia’s fledgling independent press, however, it was a major story, and as such it got a considerable amount of air time and newsprint devoted to it.

Indeed, the 1993-95 Chechnyan conflict offered one of the first concrete proofs that there had been genuine change in the Russian political climate. Whereas the 1956 intervention in Hungary and the 1968 occupation of Czechoslovakia had seen absolutely no bona fide press criticism whatsoever except from irregularly printed and illegal samizdat publications, this time there was a flood of articles and editorials censuring the Kremlin’s decision to send troops to the volatile region-- and while Yeltsin’s government might have disliked censure, they did nothing to suppress it.

At the same time, however, the civil war offered to the outside world some disturbing if faint echoes of the old USSR. To some foreigners, mostly on the right wing, it looked like the big and ferocious Russian bear was once again picking on a smaller, much weaker country. And right-wing nationalist Vladimir Zhirnovsky’s repeated urgings to Yeltsin to "bomb the Chechens flat"1 weren’t very helpful in discouraging that impression.

Both the Chechen rebel forces and the Russian army trying to squash the revolt had veterans of the Manchurian war within their ranks. This may be one reason why neither side was able to obtain a clear advantage on the battlefield for any extended length of time; another has to do with geography-- the Chechen landscape is a very rugged one, exacting a heavy toll on both men and vehicles if they spend a long time on the road.

In October of 1994, the Yeltsin government opened cease-fire negotiations with the Chechen rebel forces; these talks, partly mediated by the European Union, resulted in a tenuous cease-fire accord in July of 1995. Some political analysts, knowing the turbulent past history of Russia’s relations with its ethnic minorities, voiced concern that the cease-fire would only hold a short time before fighting broke out in Chechnya again.

In the meantime, however, the Kremlin found itself facing a different kind of war inside Russia’s own major cities. With the collapse of the CPSU’s iron rule, Russia had experienced a surge in the growth of Western-style crime syndicates, many of them operated by ex-KGB officers; as they fought with each other, and the police, for control of the streets, they turned many of those streets into shooting galleries. By the spring of 1996 one out of every six Russian citizens killed by gunfire was a victim of gang warfare.

Chairman(Of The Board) Mao: 1996-2000

In Mao Zedong’s day, the mere concept of any Chinese having a private business was considered a mortal sin-- and officially banned by CPC decree as well. Following his death, however, this attitude changed dramatically, particularly when the leadership in Beijing saw the advantages to be had both at home and abroad if the shackles on private business were taken off or at least loosened.

Indeed, by the 1990s the rulers of this Communist nation were acting more capitalist than some capitalists themselves. Foreign businesses were actively courted by the Chinese government for investment deals, while on the other side of the coin Chinese companies aggressively marketed their products and services to the outside world; nowhere were these efforts pursued with more vigor than with the United States, regarded on both sides of the Pacific as China’s most lucrative foreign market.

As the year 2000 approached, China’s consumer economy was one of the most robust in the world, surpassed only by those of South Korea, the United States, and the European Union. Eager to flaunt its newly bulked-up economic and cultural muscles for the rest of the world, the Jiang Zemin did something none of his predecessors had even considered doing before-- it made a bid to be an Olympic Games host. China had long been a participant in international sports; indeed, Mao Zedong himself was a fierce proponent of the importance of physical fitness. But hosting an Olympics would be setting a precedent in Chinese history and marking the completion of China’s evolution into a bona fide 21st century global power.

So it wasn’t surprising that the CPC put its full weight behind the drive to land the 2008 Summer Games. What did come as  a surprise was that the Beijing government made it a point early on to woo Russia’s backing; even though relations between Moscow and Beijing were considerably more cordial than they had been at the end of the Manchurian War, some had expected Boris Yeltsin’s successor, ex-KGB officer Vladimir Putin, to seek the Games for his own country. As it turned out, however, Putin was much more interested in winning the rights to the 2012 Summer Games (which eventually went to London).

One major obstacle to accomplishing the goal was China’s less- than-stellar human rights record. Since June of 1989, when PLA troops shot and killed 150 pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing in what the Western press dubbed "the second Tienanmen Square  massacre", the CPC had been the subject of worldwide criticism over its perceived brutality in the treatment of dissidents; some saw in the 1989 clash a possible return to the bad old days of the Cultural Revolution. Even as Jiang Zemin’s government was formally declaring its bid to host the 2008 games, old criticisms of Beijing’s treatment of occupied Tibet were gaining new life in the Western mainstream media and new questions were being raised  regarding the suspected persecution of the Buddhist sect Falun Gong.

Soon, however, Beijing would have more serious problems to worry about than trying to land an Olympic hosting gig. In the skies above Hainan Island, the seemingly mysterious loss of a US  Navy reconnaissance aircraft would seriously test the strength of the post-Manchurian War bond between China and the United States.

Wing And A Prayer: 2001-2004

In early April of 2001, a US Navy P-3C Orion reconnaissance aircraft exploded over Hainan Island as the result of what was later concluded to have been the ignition of fuel vapors inside one of its tanks by a spark of static electricity. At the time the disaster happened, however, nobody knew for sure what had caused it. For a while there were accusations that Chinese air  force jets had intentionally shot the plane down and killed its crew; the P-3C disaster confronted new US president Jeb Bush with the first major foreign policy crisis of his administration.

Bush and his Secretary of State, Robert Gates, knew that they were walking a geopolitical tightrope between protecting national security interest and maintaining cordial ties with China in their efforts to uncover the truth about the P-3C disaster. They were reluctant to make hasty accusations against Beijing, but by  the same token they didn’t want to ignore the possibility thatthe recon plane had been intentionally fired on.

Once it had been positively established that the plane’s destruction was the result of fuel tank malfunction and not an act of war, both Washington and Beijing breathed much easier. But the tension that had been created by the incident would linger for a long while afterward and continue to affect US-Chinese relations. This complicated things for the Bush Administration in its efforts to garner international support for military and diplomatic action against Iran after the 9/11 attacks; if they’d wanted to, the Chinese could have stopped Operation Persian Dawn before it started, given the considerable weight they carried at the UN.

Fortunately for the White House, however, Jiang Zemin wasn’t eager for another US-Chinese standoff and so the United States and its coalition partners were able to proceed with the invasion of Iran in April of 2002. With the Hainan Island crisis having passed, the CPC turned its focus toward getting Beijing ready to host the 2008 Summer Games, for which the Chinese capital had narrowly beaten out Madrid.

There were many reasons why the Chinese government was looking forward to the 2008 Olympics, not the least which was that those games would mark the first since the Manchurian War that Russian athletes had set foot on Chinese soil; for Jiang Zemin, it would provide an excellent opportunity to reaffirm the improvement that had taken place in Sino-Russian relations in the years after the war’s end.


His Russian counterpart, however, had other concerns besides athletics to think about. Vladimir Putin was now presiding over a country where the economy was in turmoil, organized crime was a severe and growing problem, and a second Chechen civil war was stirring up unpleasant echoes of the first. A spate of deaths of independent journalists in Russia had fostered charges that the Putin government was secretly having its critics bumped off to keep them from bringing to light information that might embarrass or discredit the Putin regime.

On February 1st, 2004 a tragic event crowded all other concerns of the Russian public eye and gave Putin the chance he needed to rally public backing for his harsh policies toward Chechnya. That morning, Chechen suicide bombers using tactics and equipment much like those employed by Palestinian militants on the West Bank, blew up a children’s school in the town of Beslan, killing half the school’s student body and three-quarters of its faculty.

The suicide bombing provoked visceral outrage among the Russian people; even some of those who supported the cause of Chechen independence found it nearly impossible to justify such an attack. In a nationally televised address from the Kremlin two days after the bombing, Putin called on his fellow Russians to join him in winning what he called "the most important fight  for our survival since the Great Patriotic War." He then went on to cajole the Duma into passing a series of bills which further tightened Russia’s already severe anti-terroism laws, then sent a fresh contingent of Russian troops into Chechnya to battle the Chechen guerrillas.

In this atmosphere, it was perhaps inevitable that there would be renewed debate over the legacy of the Manchurian War. Since the fall of the Communist regime at the end of the Cold War, the  conventional wisdom that the Soviet Union’s defeat of China was the Russian army’s most glorious campaign since the conquest of  Nazi Germany at the end of World War II had come into question, with some suggesting that the price Russia had paid for holding onto its territorial claims in the Ussuri River region might have been higher than she could afford to pay...


To Be Continued



1 Quoted from the February 2nd, 1994 edition of Gazeta Moskvaya.


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