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China's elite troop mounts international public relations offensive
2007/07/18

The function room of the Sixth Armoured Division of the Beijing Military Command is a colorful sight -- the 169national emblems on the wall make it appear more like a multinational company than a military unit.

Along with the emblems are pictures, in which foreign celebrities and military officials pose with Chinese soldiers, look at weapons and observe training exercises.

"More than 13,440 foreign delegates have visited our division over the past 36 years," said division commander Senior Colonel Yuan Dongwei, who leads the first armoured troop of the People's Liberation Army (PLA) open to foreigners.

The Sixth Armoured Division, the first PLA unit to be fully equipped with Chinese made tanks, armoured vehicles and artillery, is one of China's elite land forces.

"We used to be open only to visitors from socialist countries. Now we are open to all countries which have diplomatic ties with China," Yuan said.

The division has received 796 foreign delegations, including those led by late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat and former U.S. Defense Secretary Harold Brown, who served in the Carter administration.

"All the weapons used and large-scale military exercises conducted by our division are open to foreign visitors," Yuan said.

"In the past, we were actually half-open as some places were off-limits to foreigners. Now all the 'No Access to Foreigners' signs have been removed," he said.

In 2005, foreign military officials were invited to watch an exercise in a training base in the Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, involving more than a thousand of tanks and thousands of soldiers of the Sixth Armoured Division.

As contacts with foreigners increase, soldiers of the division are more at ease with questions from foreign visitors.

Chang Jinfu, director of the division's foreign affairs office, told Xinhua that soldiers no longer dodged questions, which used to be seen as military secrets.

"For example, those relating to the size and composition of our division, our logistics system, can all be answered," he said.

Chang said that in addition to combat effectiveness, some foreign visitors were also keen to find out the salaries of servicemen and changes in their living and training conditions with the increase in China's military budget.

Two months ago, U.S. Army Sergeant Major William Gainey visited the division and talked at length with the personnel.

"I think the PLA is a mystery to most foreign visitors. They are happy to meet with our soldiers to chat or have a meal with them," Chang said.

Officers of the division attributed the increased transparency to China's rapid social and economic development.

"Military diplomacy has become increasingly important as China grows. We are now trying to be more transparent and make more friends under the condition that national security is maintained," Senior Colonel Yuan said.

"We hope that our openness will help foreigners know more about the PLA, especially our efforts in safeguarding national security and regional stability, so as to reduce misunderstanding," he said.

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