Boston — Nearly 200 years after the first Yankee Clipper sailed from America, Boston wants to get back into the China trade.
That, at least, is the view of Mayor Kevin H. White following a 17-day trip last month to China, Hong Kong, and Japan.
Some observers see it as a significant shift of orientation. Unlike many regions of the country, New England has tended to take foreign trade for granted , and has not set up government agencies to cultivate overseas links.
Now, however, the city administration is proposing to work closely with private-sector businesses interested in international trade.
''I've come back from China a different person,'' said the controversial four-term mayor in a Monitor interview June 10. ''The only other time that I've significantly changed with that abruptness was the night after Martin Luther King was shot,'' he added.
In a city which this spring has suffered new outbreaks of racial violence, and which last year danced on the edge of bankruptcy, many observers wonder what this change portends.
Some see the mayor turning toward external glamour - and away from agonizing internal problems with schools (still in court receivership after the anti-discrimination battles of the early 1970s), public housing (also in court receivership), and sharp decreases in federal and local revenues.
Others see him shifting toward the business community - significant in a city known for its left-leaning public-sector attitudes.
But most agree that - if the signals can be believed - something new is in the wind.
In the mayor's view, a priority for the future will be on international trade. ''Racism and potholes and schools are important,'' he affirms, ''but they should not be so blinding that you don't see this other potential for other generations coming behind.''
He added, ''For Boston to survive economically, or any city, even if tomorrow morning there was a resurgence of (support) from Washington,'' it will need an ''economic engine.'' And ''the only economic engine that a city can have,'' he noted, ''will be to compete on a world stage.''
What began as an invitation to visit Boston's sister city of Hangchow - which in China is viewed as a cultural and aesthetic center, much as Boston is in America - turned into a whirl of visits that included high-level officials at the Foreign Ministry in Peking, a meeting in Hong Kong with businessmen interested in investing in American ventures, and talks with senior executives at Mitsubishi and Sony in Japan.
''They want desperately to catch up economically,'' said the mayor about the Chinese. He says his visit was important because, as a politician, he understood the motivations of his hosts. ''I was a mayor in a country whose whole function in all areas of activities,'' he said, ''is carried on by politicians.''
Flying from Shanghai to Hong Kong, he said, ''was like going from Harlem to Monte Carlo in about five minutes.'' There, he says, he found ''extremely wealthy guys who don't know what to do with their money, whose sons or themselves had gone to Harvard, Princeton, or someplace 15 years ago,'' and who had not yet considered Boston as a place to invest.
In Japan, he says, he discovered that ''the Japanese businessman is not only a good businessman but a good politician.'' They are not ''better businessmen than our guys,'' he notes. What makes them successful, he says, is that ''their businessmen are better politicians than our businessmen.''
The mayor's apparent shift in priorities comes at a time when Boston, like other American cities, is struggling to redefine the relations between its private and public sectors. Facing a decline in services long provided by federal funds, businessmen and politicians have begun to develop closer relationships.
Recently, too, businesses interested in overseas trade have begun to cooperate, and the Greater Boston Fund for International Affairs has produced an in-depth report analyzing the city's international profile.
Many brush aside the mayor's new-found interest - articulated in a spate of public talks since his return from the Far East - as mere rhetoric.
But one highly-placed consultant in touch with key members of the city's international community says, ''I know this is genuine'' and describes the mayor's interest as ''serious.'' He does, however, question the mayor's ''span of attention.''