HEADQUARTERS, 196TH DIVISION, PEOPLE'S LIBERATION ARMY, CHINA, Sept. 24, 1972 (UPI) - It is not difficult to determine from first glimpse that Ting Yu-hai is a military man.
Stocky of build, thick neck, squared shoulders, sun-tanned from the outdoors, his piercing eyes switch from merry twinkle to icy glare in a fraction of a second. He is called "Commissar," a top-ranking man among the 10,000 troops at this hot, dusty base camp about 17 miles from Tientsin on the North China coast.
His uniform, except for two extra pockets on the jacket, is the same green fatigues with red collar tabs worn by his men. But Ting wears his with more bearing and when he walks in to a room men described as his equals stir uneasily as do soldiers when a general walks into U. S. Army headquarters. They glance at him occasionally for a cue. They listen attentively as he talks.
Ting, 43, has spent half his life in the People's Liberation Army (PLA). His round face has a slight battle scar on the right side of his chin.
Ting and his men are prepared to lead a tour of the big base for the visiting UPI newsmen. (Before the tour is over they assure the visitors the Army will not be the "kingmaker" in choosing new leaders for the country. The Army role is to defeat aggression from any direction and the liberation of the Nationalist-held Taiwan is a "sacred duty." They talk bluntly and they act smug when their troops demonstrate PLA firepower.)
Ting sounds bored as he recites the history of this infantry division born in 1937 with a few men from guerrilla units - more than 38,000 enemy troops "destroyed," Americans among them, 16,000 rifles captured. It fought the Nationalist troops of Chiang Kai-shek, the Japanese who occupied the country and the Americans in Korea.
This backgrounding takes place indoors, at a long table laden with fruit and ice-cold watermelon slices, most welcome on a day when the weather grows hotter by the hour.
Ting explains the PLA's role as a "fighting force and a force of production." This means work among the people. Teaching political dogma as well as constructing or guiding the construction of projects ranging from bridges to town buildings.
"Chairman Mao has taught us to serve the people," Ting says.
It all has the ring of a pre-rehearsed spiel, the same speech other visitors have heard. You feel that if you walked out of the room, with Mao's picture over Ting's shoulder, and returned 24 hours later you could pick up on the last phrase without losing a thing.
The Commissar's aides are around the table and as they begin to fidget, Ting suggests the visitors go outside. It is clear he prefers the outdoors to this exercise.
Once outside, with the hot sun beating down, he seems more sure of himself. He leads the entourage through kitchens, workshops, a factory producing medicines and, as his comrades rattle off statistics, he stands to one side watching for reactions from the visitors.
Then comes lunch and Ting, along with most of his men and two pretty women PLA members, sits down with his cap still on and, using chopsticks, starts offering pieces of food from the center of the table to his guests. He does it with skill and soon everyone is eating. Making small talk is one of the jobs of high-ranking military men who find themselves at such events and Ting chats about his children and asks about the visitors' children and how long the visitors expect to be in China.
He proposes a toast to American-Chinese friendship with the clear white Mao Tai (a fiery Chinese liquor in thimble-sized glasses. He seems eager to test the drinking ability of his guests and four (or was it five?) more times he lifts his small glass and orders (there was no hint of request) the traditional "ganh bey" or bottoms up. By now he is firmly in command of things and, mercifully suggests no more toasts.
Other stops have been more leisurely but Ting is now brisk and keeps looking at his watch. He has 50 men on the rifle range waiting to display their skills with weapons and this is more important than leisurely lunches.
He sits in the special visitors' observation building with his guests flanking him, unsmiling as the PLA troops carry out an impressive showing of firepower, from rifles to hand grenades. Chairman Mao emphasizes hand grenades and this group of handpicked "fighters" should find favor with the man at the top. Ting again watches for reaction among the visitors and a smile crosses his face once or twice. His men are doing their commander proud although he looks pained when a rifle target fails to fall on the first volley.
The 10-man squads chant: "Heighten the vigilance; defend the Motherland" as they move in and out of firing positions. Then it is over, with a thunderous mortar exhibition, and Ting agrees to answer questions back in the room with the ice cold water melon slices.
Does this infantry division have, or expect to have, tactical nuclear weapons?
"As we have reported many times, our nuclear weapons are still in the experimental phase. They are for our defense only."
The division leader makes about $50 per month; his soldiers get about $3 per month for "pocket money" in addition to clothing, food, medical attention and a long list of other things. There have been recent increases for the recruits and lower ranks, but none for the top officers.
The visit ended, Ting escorts his guests to their cars. He is cordial and salutes before shaking each hand.
(H. L. Stevenson became editor-in-chief and vice president of UPI in 1972 after 7 years as managing editor. He joined UPI in 1953 at Jackson, Miss., and was a reporter and news executive in the Southern Division before moving to New York headquarters. A native of New Orleans, he attended Pearl River College and Millsaps College in Mississippi where he grew up.)