Dust flies up in a cloud along the highway of Mohan, the country's southernmost town on the Chinese-Laos border in Southwest China's Yunnan Province.
Eleven armed, camouflaged border patrol soldiers have swung into action. They're from the No 4 company of X frontier regiment under the Yunnan Military Region.
Back in a control room equipped with an intelligent command and control system, a few kilometers from the border, company commander Huang Wenbing watches a surveillance monitor.
Figures loom near the X boundary marker dividing China and Laos. They are trying to make an illegal border crossing.
Huang is calm. "Even a rabbit attempting to cross the border cannot escape our monitors," he says, fixing his eyes on the surveillance screen, on which even their facial expressions can be seen.
Huang locks the suspects in the digital monitoring system, and with a click of a mouse his soldiers position themselves to move in on them.
"01! 01! 02 Page! 02 Page!" The voice of Li Hongzhong comes through loud and clear on the radio system. Li is the instructor leading the platoon. "The target is already in our pocket. Should we move now? Give an order, give an order."
"Go!" says Huang.
"Freeze! Don't move!" The soldiers ambush the suspects, preventing them from crossing the border.
This real-life maneuver illustrates how the combat capabilities of frontier troops managing the land borders of Southwest China have been enhanced with digital technology. Yunnan borders the Southeast Asian countries of Vietnam, Laos and Myanmar.
The frontier defense force is regarded as the nation's eyes and ears. But its eyes and ears haven't been so sharp over the past 40 years, without the technology to cover much ground.
Located at the southern end of Yunnan Province, the Mohan section of Sino-Laos boundary is 834kilometers away from the provincial capital Kunming and neighbors Namtha Province of Laos. "Just like a fence dividing two neighbors' properties, boundary markers serve as walls, and symbolize the two countries' territories," says Li Yingjun, a colonel in the frontier regiment.
"One of our functions during peace time is checking the boundary markers to make sure they aren't damaged."
There are more than 30 markers in the 354-kilometer defense area of Li's regiment. The furthest one is over 100 kilometers away from the barracks.
Border patrols were both time and energy consuming in the past. It would take a month for the whole regiment to check all of the markers in the tropical jungles and mountains. The patrol relied on traditional radio transmitter-receivers, maps and compasses.
On patrol, the soldiers carried a wireless transmission receiver weighing 12 kilograms.
Colonel Li, 38, has been patrolling the Sino-Laos border for 15 years. "The receiver was so heavy that soldiers would cry when they had to climb a steep hill. Normally, there would be seven or eight soldiers who took turns carrying the receiver," he says.
But Yuan He, a 21-year-old junior officer, says the biggest problem was malfunctioning communications equipment. "The transmission receiver would often fail while we were working in a valley. The soldiers on patrol would get lost," says Yuan, who has served in the frontier troop for four years. "We had to wait until we got to a mountaintop and set up the antenna so we could reconnect with headquarters."
But poor communication was also a problem in locations with no topographical obstacles. In 2002, Li's regiment conducted a joint defense rehearsal with local police and civilians. In order to transmit a "military order", Li recalls, "we literally yelled into the phone to each other for 20 minutes because the signal or connection was so bad. The orders were frequently mis-transmitted. Headquarters fired in the wrong direction, missing the targets who had crossed the border illegally."
"In a real battle, mis-transmitted information can lead to troops being killed," Li says.
The failed rehearsal sounded the alarm for the frontier defense force in Yunnan. "When it comes to guarding our borders, it is no longer possible to rely on traditional measures. The border situation is much more complicated," says Deng Shaolin, political commissar of the Xishuangbanna sub-area of the Yunnan Military Region.
This part of China has eight frontier regiments, guarding the more than 4,000-kilometer frontier. It accounts for one-fifth of China's land borders. Deng notes that along these land borders there are many open ports and unofficial passes. "Although the regiments may not be involved in direct warfare, their mission to combat cross-border smuggling and drug trafficking syndicates is quite intricate and arduous," he says.
"Therefore, we urgently need to improve the border force's ability to deal with emergencies."
The Yunnan Military Region started building intelligent command and control systems in 2005 to enable real-time monitoring around the clock.
Li's regiment was the first to work with IT experts from military and civilian universities to "train officers and soldiers in IT technology, and to help set up digital FDDI to each of the regiment's companies".
After two years' work and an investment of 1.5 million yuan ($197,100), electronic equipment including GPS devices and digital video cameras have replaced soldier's traditional gear like maps and transmission receivers.
New technology has created better conditions for the patrol team. "Soldiers aren't driven to cry or yell anymore," Li says.
Soldiers on patrol "carry laptop computers, digital cameras and GPS devices, which are installed in their helmets for convenience", he says.
These electronic devices have effectively extended the scope of the frontier defense force. "They (hi-tech devices) have brought remote areas closer, scattered areas are centralized, and those that were hidden are now out in the open," says Fang Xingguo, deputy director of the Yunnan Provincial Work Committee on Border Control.
Border patrols have greatly improved, with digital visual and audio communication technology linking headquarters to command teams that may be thousands of kilometers away, Fang says.
The main passes in the Yunnan Military Region have been equipped with monitors, alarms and infrared night-vision cameras, making 24-hour real-time monitoring possible, according to Fang.
"The 24-hour real-time surveillance means no sign of disturbance or trouble on the border escapes us," says No 4 company commander Huang, as he checks on the border situation through the command and control system in the company's border surveillance room.
He clicks the mouse, and lingers on the screen for a few seconds. A man in a gray shirt and black trousers catches his attention. The man is sitting in front of the X boundary marker, with one leg in China, the other in Laos.
Huang watches him for a while. "I've got to call armed police to get them to check this man to see if he's attempting an illegal crossing."
(China Daily 08/01/2007 page22)