Chairman Mao Zedong, in early October 1962, assembled Chinese leaders to announce the final decision, which was for war: “We fought a war with old Chiang [Kai-shek]. We fought a war with Japan, and with America. With none of these did we fear. And in each case we won. Now the Indians want to fight a war with us. Naturally, we don't have fear. We cannot give ground, once we give ground it would be tantamount to letting them seize a big piece of land equivalent to Fujian province... Since Nehru sticks his head out and insists on us fighting him, for us not to fight with him would not be friendly enough. Courtesy emphasises reciprocity,” Henry Kissinger, quoting Mao Zedong, wrote in his 2011 book, On China.
Fifty years later, the narrative in China continues to blame India for the war. The belief: it was Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru’s misunderstanding and miscalculation of the border situation that pushed China, then reeling under the impact of large-scale famines, into war with India.
“It was Nehru’s ‘Forward Policy’ of wanting to define the border unilaterally and go beyond the McMahon Line that really provoked China. Finally, Chinese leadership got irritated. The language used at that time (by leaders of the Communist Party of China (CPC) was something like ‘teach (India) a lesson’,” sais professor Hu Shi Sheng, head of the South Asia, South East Asia and Oceania Studies at the State Council-Affiliated China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.
According to Hu, Nehru and his team were further misled by Tibetan refugees who had fled to India under Dalai Lama three years ago. “They gave wrong information (to the Indian administration) that China will not react. The political sanctuary given to Dalai Lama by India complicated matters; it made the situation sensitive and ticklish,” Hu said.
Experts here argue that proof of China’s defensive posture was that Mao declared a ceasefire and ordered the withdrawal of troops; they also make it a point to mention the humane treatment given to captured Indian soldiers.
“China's peaceful intentions were further testified by its unilateral ceasefire on November 22, 1962, and its withdrawal of troops a few days later to 20 kilometers from the line of actual control since November 7, 1959. China also carefully treated Indian prisoners of war. Injured Indian soldiers were given proper medical treatment and were sent back to their homeland. Chinese soldiers were even ordered by their commander to polish seized Indian weapons and return them back to the Indian army. This was unprecedented,” wrote Hong Yuan, researcher with the Center of World Politics at the Chinese Academy of Social Science, in a recent commentary.
Whether Chinese soldiers actually polished and returned seized Indian weaponry is a matter of debate, but a documentary titled ‘The Crushing Moment: China-India 1962 War’ circulating on the internet certainly hones the claims that Beijing only counter-attacked and treated the prisoners of war (POW) well.
Dismissed by some as propaganda, the footage, starting from September 8, 1962, shows the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) readying to face Indian “aggression”, setting up their own outposts and finally “wiping” out several Indian army brigades. It shows Chinese nurses feeding soup to Indian soldiers; doctors treating the wounded and the captured.
“The withdrawal (from Arunachal Pradesh which China claims to South Tibet) was also because the leaders thought that the territory anyway belonged to China," said professor Wang Dehua, director of the Institute for South Asia and Central Asian Studies at the Shanghai Municipal Centre for International Studies.
But unlike in India, which comprehensively lost the war, there seems to be little interest about it here except the rare opinion piece in the state media. One reason could be that the party is immersed in preparing for the upcoming 18th Congress in November. But even otherwise, according to diplomats posted in Beijing, there’s hardly or no mention about the event in official circles.
Mention in history books here about the war – much like in India – revolves around the same belief: India attacked, China defended.
Hong says: “fifty years ago, the Indian government was blinded by selfish interests, and wanted to force the Chinese to accept an illegal border line created by colonial powers. This was boldly rejected. Today, both countries need to learn from their ancient friendly ties and the lesson from the war. For the Chinese, they love peace but they will also firmly defend their land.” This could well be Mao speaking.