People’s Liberation Army soldiers stationed in China’s vast high-altitude regions can heave a sigh of relief – as they can now inhale pure or high-concentration oxygen for at least one hour daily, thanks to a move by the military to equip all regiments and sentry posts with oxygenators and bedside oxygen outlets.

Craggy, elevated plateaus dominate the terrain of western China, in particular in Tibet, Qinghai and southern Xinjiang, where the average altitude exceeds 4,500 metres, over three miles above sea level.

With oxygen partial pressure some 35% to 40% below that at sea level, many parts of Tibet and Qinghai are inhabitable, and long exposure to the thin air there may lead to severe complications known as acute mountain sickness, with symptoms like breathlessness, headache, heart pain, unsteady gait, pneumonedema. This can progress to high-altitude pulmonary edema or high-altitude cerebral edema, both of which are potentially fatal, and can only be cured by immediate descent to lower altitude or administration of oxygen.

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PLA troops patrol the Tibet-Qinghai railway. Photo: PLA Daily

The majority of civilians have already been relocated from the harsh, frigid Tibetan Plateau and Pamir Mountains to areas at a lower altitude yet soldiers have to be deployed there for defence and border patrols.

Previously, oxygen cylinders were delivered from inland on an irregular basis, subject to weather conditions, and during winter the “oxygen stock” could only be replenished once every two months.

Beijing started a special program in 2013 to distribute oxygenators and build oxygen factories for all PLA bases in Tibet and Qinghai with an altitude of 3,000 meters or above. These bases are scattered over a total area of 2 million square kilometers.

The program includes 170 oxygen factories and hyperbaric oxygen chambers and almost 5,000 oxygenators, according to the PLA Daily.

Bedside oxygen inhalers are available for all soldiers deployed in areas more than 4,000 meters above sea level.

The PLA’s highest forward post is in southern Xinjiang’s Hetian, on the crest the Kunlun Mountain, which has an altitude of 5,418 meters.

Xinhua reported that a wife developed severe symptoms of high mountain sickness when visiting her husband there and received prompt treatment inside an oxygen chamber.

A PLA general revealed in his Weibo account that the army was developing ultra-portable, book-sized oxygenators, each able to provide oxygen for eight hours, for soldiers to carry while on patrol.

With Beijing adamantly claiming territory in disputed areas along the Indian-Tibetan border, as well as stepped-up border patrols to intercept smugglers and extremists wanting to infiltrate southern Xinjiang, easier access to oxygen is a sure boost to the capability of Chinese troops assigned to these onerous tasks.