"A large number of heroes have emerged from among the frontier forces of the Chinese People's Liberation Army during the self-defensive counterattack against the Vietnamese aggressors. Their moving deeds and patriotic spirit have won the praise of the people all over the country, and learning from their fine example has become a major event in the Chinese people's life."

- From the Peking Review, April 13

IF I HAD to single our the one thing that struck me most forcefully on a recent quick tour of China, it would be all all-pervsive sense of discipline - of smothering, unquestioning conformity. You see it everywhere: in the rows of stooped backs in bright green rice paddies; in the schoolyard calisthenics conducted simultaneously all over the country to the accompaniment of music from a government radio station; in the eyes of leukemia patients propped up for inspection by visiting dignitaries; in the benumbed precision of convicts stamping out wristwatch frames in a Shanghai prison.

But nowhere was it conveyed more compellingly than in the way the Chinese authorities have dealt with their "Vietnam" - that brief, baffling, inconclusive and some would say humiliating invasion of Vietnam by the Chinese army in late February and early March of this year.

China, you must understand, won its Vietnam War.

How? Largely, by borrowing from the wisdom of an American senator, George Aiken of Vermont. They "declared victory," as the senator proposed that the United States do in the dark days of its own Vietnam, and came home.

And while that may sound like a relatively easy thing to do in a tightly closed, controlled society, the way the Chinese went about it is no less instructive on that account - instructive about China's internal workings and also, it seems to me, in a larger geopolitical sense. At the very least, China's "Vietnam" tells you something about what free and open societies are up against in their struggle for influence and advantage in a world composed in large part of closed societies.

Consider the objective facts. In conventional battlefield terms, by every account, the actual conflict was unproductive to the point of embarrassment, and far costlier in casualties than the Peking government had bargained for.

In terms of the hearts and minds of the powers-that-be in Vietnam, which is what none other than Vice Chairman Deng Xioa-ping himself said it was all about, it was equally a bust. If the point of the exercise was to teach the Vietnamese "some useful lessons" (Deng's words in Washington in early February, before the Chinese attack), the Vietnamese must be slow learners: They continue to harass the Chinese border, intervene against Chinese interests in Cambodia and brutalize Vietnamese citizens of Chinese origin.

A further purpose, it is said, was to stiffen the American government by demonstrating that important Soviet interests could be challenged with impunity. But Washington was stiffened, judging from the handwringing and cries of alarm at the time, only in the sense that it was scared stiff that its new Chinese friends would draw the Russians into a wider war.

If the Chinese gained anything of value, the China watchers tell you, it was strictly in the form of a useful training exercise for an army grown rusty from long disuse - that and a strong talking-point for the Chinese military for more modern arms.

But never mind. Inside China, where it probably matters most, it was a big win. What would have been perceived in other countries and by other societies as a humiliation, an unforgivable strategic blunder and a crippling reflection on the policymakers and the political leadership has been assiduously presented by the government and readily accepted by the people - as far as an outsider can tell - as a smashing triumph, a quintessential contribution to the cause of "modernization" and a splendid learning experience for young and old.

Kumming, the capital of Yunan Province - one of the two Chinese provinces bordering directly on Vietnam - offers an interesting test. Once the scene of one end of the famous American airlift over the Himalayan hump in World War II, Kunming was a main staging area and command center for China's Vietnam "incursion." There # you would expect to find a certain first-hand familiarity with reality, perhaps some sign of bitterness or sense of failure. You might even expect to encounter acute anxiety; within recent weeks, the government-controlled China News Agency has distributed alarming reports of continuing "armed provocations" along Yunan's Vietnam border, killing and wounding Chinese peasants and "seriously threatening the life and property of the people there."

Instead, what you find in Kunming is precisely what you encounter in Peking or Shanghai - or wherever; from what I was told by more widely traveled western observers on the scene. What you find is fierce, patriotic, unwavering pride in the performance of China's fighting men in the "self-defensive counter-attack against rhe Vietnamese aggressors."

Newspaper editorials and morning radio shows regularly hail the battlefield heroics of China's Vietnam veterans and exhort the young people to turn away from the decadence of Democracy Wall and bell-bottom trousers and take their inspiration from the "spirit of the heroes." China's Vietnam veterans have not had to wait a decade or longer for their government to express its gratitude by the formal declaration of a Vietnam Veterans Week - something the United States government finally got around to last June. Rather, they are paraded all over the countryside to tell their war stories to the people.

Demobilized veterans get preferential hiring treatment; families of those killed in action get special attention from local communist committees. Veterans still in uniform do not throw their medals over a fence in front of, let us say, the Great Hall of the People. They wear them, along with a special red badge of Vietnam service.

Ask a group of eager English-language students at Yunan University their view of the "war" and they respond very nearly in unison, and in faithful echo of Vice Chairman Deng: "It was necessary to teach them a lesson. All the Chinese hate the Vietnamese. We gave them a good lesson and if they invade our frontiers again we'll teach them another lesson. For modernization, we need calm frontiers;"

Walk down the main street of Kunming and you will notice a cluster of pedestrians gathered around a store-front display. It features pictures of battle scenes and captured Vietnamese weapons, action shots of "brave...alert...intelligent" officers and enlisted men and women squinting down rifle barrels, manning artillery pieces, poring over battle maps, keenly scanning the terrain. The viewers are not glancing casually and passing on; they are studying the captions with care.

What is one to make of all this? That American foreign policy would be a whole lot easier to conduct without polls and elections and a Senate Foreign Affairs Committee and the First Amendment and the right to protest? Of course it would; the idea even had a certain official acceptance by at least two American administrations as they struggled to reconcile the commands of participatory democracy with the needs of national security in the course of our own "Vietnam."

Calling an invasion in force a "self-defensive counterattack," when you think about it, is not all that different from calling a U.S. bombing run over Cambodian territory a "protective reaction strike." "Declaring victory" is not all that far removed from inundating the American public with uniformly optimistic and misleading progress reports from the battlefield and the pacification programs. And while there is a world of difference between China's suppression of information and dissent and the U.S. government's misinformation, the wire-tapping and the other extralegal harassments of the anti-war movement in the worst of our Vietnam days, a case could be made that the impulse in both instances is the same.

But that is past history, and beside the point. The American and Chinese experiences in Vietnam are analogous only in a strictly limited and, you might even say, game-playing way: Both countries wanted the Vietnamese to "leave their neighbors alone"; both sought to accomplish limited purposes by limited military means; both missions depended for their effectiveness on at least the appearance of unqualified public support. And right there the analogies break down. The Chinese have been able to "declare victory" in their "Vietnam" and make it stick because that's the way the Chinese system works. The United States couldn't proclaim its mission accomplished and make it stick because, in the end and at terrible cost, it can be claimed that the American system worked.

But when you have said that - when you are all through defending the American Way while holding the Chinese Way in contempt - where are you?The answer, it seems to me, is that you remain confronted by an uncomfortable and potentially dangerous reality: the existence of a genuinely awesome capacity on the part of the Chinese central government, working through a vast network of regional and local party committees and units, to order the existence, dictate the responses and manage the performance of an enormous mass of society. That this is not a discipline to be envied makes it no less a force to be reckoned with - or so it struck me while watching those Chinese clustered around the store-front display in Kunming. The question that remains is whether it can be reckoned with effectively while this country continues to be caught up in debilitating internal quarrels over who is in charge of foreign policy and how it can best be conducted in an open society.