Washington — What can Song Ping learn from Martin Feldstein? It's an intriguing question. Song Ping is head of the State Planning Commission and a member of the State Council in the People's Republic of China. Martin Feldstein is chairman of the White House Council of Economic Advisers. One is a commmunist planner.The other is a capitalist economist.
The amazing thing is that Mr. Song and other Chinese communist planners are now in the United States meeting not only with Mr. Feldstein but many other government, academic, and industrial leaders. Their purpose is to look at American planning and management methods and see what might be adapted to the experience of China as it struggles to lift its backward economy into the 20th century.
''I'm intrigued by the notion of planners from a communist, developing country coming to an unplanned, advanced capitalist country,'' says Harry Harding, a China scholar at the Brookings Institution. ''What do they think they are going to gain? How transferable are the lessons?''
This is not the first high-level Chinese delegation to touch base in the land of big capitalism. Ever since party leader Deng Xiaoping helped overthrow the old Maoist order and set his nation on the pragmatic path to modernization, hundreds of Chinese specialists - from engineers and educators to defense experts - have come to the US to look and learn. The very fact that some 12,000 Chinese now are studying in American universities bears witness to China's reach outward to the West.
The 10-man planning delegation arrived April 11. Since then, it has visited the Port Authority of New York and the university ''research triangle'' in North Carolina. In Washington, meetings are planned with Vice-President George Bush; economist Charles Schultze and other scholars at Brookings; lawmakers in Congress; and officials in the Cabinet and Office of Management and Budget. By the time they leave the country April 29, the Chinese will also have visited the Hoover Dam in Nevada, Fluor Corporation, Rand Corporation, Bechtel Corporation, and SRI International, a California think tank.
Three major areas interest Mr. Song and his colleagues, according to officials of the National Committee on US-China Relations, under whose aegis such visits take place. One is the impact of modernization on society. Another is the kind of long-range and short-term planning done by American industry and even government.
The third is the role of different kinds of energy in planning: the extent to which should China should pursue the development of nuclear power, fossil fuels, and hydropower.
Other crucial questions have to be thought through as China shifts from an overcentralized planning system, structured in part on the Soviet model, to one which combines socialist and market elements:
What level of technology is appropriate to a developing country? What should be done with the land as industrialization intensifies? Out of 800 million people working on farms, how does the state cope if 200 million become superfluous? How can one set sensible prices when there are so many built-in subsidies, such as medical benefits, housing, and basic food items? In the decentralization process, how much power should remain at the center?
Besides the US, the Chinese are looking firsthand at other capitalist and communist countries for ideas that could have useful application in the People's Republic.
Japan is high on the list. The Hungarian and Yugoslav systems have also attracted Chinese attention. But this is the first time a head of the key Chinese planning agency is visiting the US for such purposes.
The Chinese have learned that even in capitalist America, a lot of strategic planning goes on in industry and at the regional and state levels. Among other things, they will hear the views of Charles Shultze, a former presidential economic adviser, on the current debate over a ''new industrial policy.''
Although China's reformers are in a hurry to accomplish their goals at home, it is not all clear sailing there for them. In addition to a host of practical problems, Deng Xiaoping and his colleagues contend with political opposition.
Many of the Maoist old guard have vested interests in the old system and are not enthusiastic about China's current course, including the reduction of central controls. Ideological concern about Western cultural influences, for instance, recently led to a brief government crackdown on ''spiritual pollution.''
Yet the changes to date astonish US experts observing the China of only a few years ago. There are now joint ventures with foreign firms, and Chinese enterprises in some cities are allowed to do their own negotiating for the projects. Foreign corporations in China are being returned to private ownership. Some market practices, including incentives, have been introduced in industry and agriculture to spur production and boost efficiency.
The Chinese are also trying to rebuild their research and educational facilities after the turmoil created by the Cultural Revolution. That accounts for their interest in US ''think tanks.'' Recently, another Chinese delegation was in the US visiting such places as Rand, the Heritage Foundation, Columbia University, Harvard's Kennedy School of Government and Fairbank Institute, and the American Enterprise Institute.
American Sinologists stress the value of such visits. ''It's important for the Chinese to know how we operate and to give them a feel for the alternatives to whatever they have had in the past,'' comments a China specialist. ''Not everything in the US is applicable, but they gain through their contacts here.''
''Ideology is being shed,'' he adds. ''Marxism in China will never be the same.''