Tokyo — During Communist leader Hu Yaobang's visit to a Japanese electronics laboratory last week, a robot that can saw wood or hammer nails refused to perform.
''It worked beautifully just an hour ago,'' lamented the lab's director. ''I'm afraid robots are like humans - they get flustered in the presence of such a distinguished visitor as your excellency.''
''I don't think it's the robot that's flustered,'' Mr. Hu shot back, ''it's the poor fellow that's trying to operate it.''
On his first visit to a non-communist country, the General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party has showed a ready wit and an ability to score points.
Asked about a just-reported defection of a Chinese diplomat, Mr. Hu said it was not surprising that among one billion Chinese some might be disheartened by all the difficulties the country faces.
He recalled that, during senior leader Deng Xiaoping's visit to the United States, Mr. Deng told then President Carter: ''So long as you are willing to accept them, we can easily send you as many as 10 million Chinese.''
Mr. Hu then alluded to a popular television drama in Japan that chronicles the life of O-Shin, a girl whose indomitable spirit wins over her poverty.
''I think,'' he said, ''that O-Shin's way is 10,000 times wiser than that of a Chinese choosing to go into exile.''
Mr. Hu is scarcely five feet tall, but makes up for this with gestures as sweeping as if he were on a conductor's podium. Addressing the Diet (parliament) one day and a young people's gathering the next, he spoke in a grand old oratorical style.
''He is like a heavenly horse galloping across the sky,'' said Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone of his visitor.
Mr. Hu traveled to the northern island of Hokkaido, visiting a farm and finding out how, during the past century, the Japanese developed their equivalent of America's Western frontier. Mr. Hu is personally interested in opening up China's vast, sparsely populated northwestern territories, and the Japanese experience may give him a hint or two.
Mr. Hu will also be tramping through Matsushita's television factory in Osaka or flying into atom-bombed Nagasaki.
Is anything substantive being achieved on this eight-day canter?
First, Mr. Hu has established himself both as a figure in the public eye and in personal contacts with Japanese politicians and businessmen. In a country like Japan, where personal relationships are all-important, this will significantly help to promote China's modernization.
Second, Mr. Hu has given the impression that China may work on North Korea to defuse tension with South Korea.
Third, although ultimately time alone can give the assurance of political and economic stability sought by Japanese and other potential investors in China, Mr. Hu has patiently and conscientiously spelled out why, in his opinion, the reformist policies of Peking's collective leadership will last.