When the senior Chinese officer on the ground, Qi Fabao, confronted the Indian soldiers high in the Himalayas last June, he was suddenly overwhelmed in a brawl fought with pipes, clubs and stones, according to the People’s Liberation Army of China.
It said a battalion commander identified as Chen Hongjun led a charge of reinforcements to rescue him, in what became the deadliest clash in more than four decades along the tense mountainous border between China and India.
The senior officer suffered a roughly four-inch gash across his forehead but survived. Chen Hongjun died, along with three other soldiers, the People’s Liberation Army’s Daily reported on Friday, in the most detailed official account of the battle so far. One of them was sucked under the churning current of the Galwan River, which rushes out of a valley at an elevation of nearly 14,000 feet.
The account in the army’s official newspaper was China’s first explicit acknowledgment that its soldiers had died in the clash on June 15, the fiercest of a series of confrontations along contested parts of the border over the last eight months.
India lost 20 soldiers in that brawl and honored them with public rituals of mourning that, until now, China had not extended to its own troops. The clashes have badly soured relations between the two countries, which had been improving before last year.
It is not clear why the People’s Liberation Army disclosed the four deaths now. In doing so, it announced that it had awarded Qi Fabao, a regimental commander with two decades of service along the mountainous border, the honorary title of Hero of Defending the Border.
The four who died received the same award posthumously. (The account did not provide the ranks of the officers and soldiers.)
“We are the boundary marker of the motherland,” one of the soldiers who died, Xiao Siyuan, was said to have written in a diary before the fatal clash, “and every inch of our land under our feet is the motherland’s territory.”
The new details came after the two countries reached an agreement to withdraw their forces from another flash point along the border where clashes occurred: Pangong Tso, a scenic glacial lake not far from Galwan.
Both sides have appeared eager to keep the tensions from turning into open conflict — while not openly conceding any territory along a border that remains undefined in places.
“In India, the critics are saying that at this stage there is no loss of territory to India because this disengagement is very limited to Pangong Lake’s banks and both armies are withdrawing,” said D.S. Hooda, a retired lieutenant general who served as the head of the Indian Army’s Northern Command. “The big question is how it will unfold in other sectors.”
China’s version of the deadly clash could not be independently verified. It blamed India for the brawl and the broader tensions, while never using the country’s name. The Chinese simply confronted “foreign forces,” the article read.
India, in turn, has blamed China for encroaching past the Line of Actual Control that separates the two sides in the disputed areas.
A spokesman for China’s Ministry of National Defense, Ren Guoqiang, said that the article was an effort to correct what he called exaggerated and slanderous efforts by India and others to distort the facts. “History cannot be tampered with,” he said in a statement on the ministry’s website. “Heroes cannot be forgotten.”
Until now, China had only obliquely referred to “losses” during the clash last summer. The article did not present the four deaths as an exhaustive count. Indian officials have claimed that Chinese losses were at least as high as India’s 20 fatalities. An American intelligence official said last summer that China had deliberately concealed its soldiers’ deaths, suggesting that between 20 and 30 had perished.
In broad strokes, the descriptions of the clash in the Galwan Valley corresponded with those from the Indian side, providing a window into how China views the standoff and how it rallies its own forces with appeals to honor and sacrifice.
In places, the Chinese account verged on hagiography, including cinematic scenes that seemed somewhat improbable.
“Take care of my mom if I die!” the soldier who drowned, identified as Wang Zhuoran, was said to have shouted to another soldier before he “toppled into the bone-chilling torrent forever.”
Hari Kumar contributed reporting and Claire Fu contributed research.