A glimpse of China

News from China currently emphasizes two objectives of the present leadership: modernization and the recovery of national territory. Even to the casual visitor, these seem plainly linked.

I have just completed a visit to Hong Kong, to four of China's principal ports, and to Peking. It was my first visit to China in 42 years. Even this brief glimpse showed the contrast with the past and helped illuminate the present Chinese preoccupations.

These 42 years have been a time of constant upheaval, of war, revolution, cultural revolution, and the death of Mao. The visitor can sense, in talks with the guides and the occasional chance conversation with other Chinese, the relief that this long period of chaos - and, particularly, the cultural revolution - is , for the moment, over.

Despite this history, there is every indication that the physical circumstances and the health of the masses of Chinese have improved. My letters home in September 1940 were punctuated with references to ''mud hovels,'' ''ragged and dirty people,'' ''beggars,'' and ''disease.''

Today the superficial impression of the carefully escorted tourist is vastly different. The hordes of people appear neatly dressed and reasonably fed. Even when the tourist breaks loose for a free walk in a city, he or she is accosted only occasionally by someone who apparently wants to practice English. There are few signs of inadequate drainage or squalid housing, except for some persons still displaced by the Tianjin earthquake. There are no visible beggars.

Although there has been dramatic progress, China clearly has far to go before it can adequately house, feed, and employ its enormous population. Even in the most developed regions, its infrastructure of roads and facilities appears inadequate for the present level of activity. Its ports, at a time of expanding trade, have only begun to enter the container age.

The emphasis of the present leadership, sparked by Deng Xiaoping, becomes understandable.

At the same time, visitors to Shanghai, Qingdao, Dalien, and Tianjin are reminded by the comments of the Chinese and by the faded edifices of the European concessions of the days of foreign exploitation in China. Signs welcoming the Chinese from Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao remind the visitor that there are territories the Chinese still regard as under foreign domination.

Their recovery, however long-term it may be, is a matter of Chinese pride. The current dialogue with the United States on Taiwan and the anticipated discussions with Prime Minister Thatcher in September on the future course of Hong Kong give special significance to this second objective of territorial recovery.

Clearly Deng and his followers face obstacles in their objective of modernization. The difficulty of making even a minor adjustment in tour arrangements and the rows of curtained sedans outside ministerial offices testify both to the inertia and the privileges of a giant bureaucracy. One woman guide dared to talk to me about the ''absurdity'' of the ponderous state planning system which made it enormously difficult to change production plans to match changing styles and tastes.

Deng seems, nevertheless, to be moving boldly to emphasize the pragmatic over the political. Chinese in the communes spoke of the new regulations which permit a greater private share to the farmer.

The absence of political slogans and pictures of Mao is one of the surprises of today's China. Only one picture of Mao was visible: the one over the gate to Tian An Men Square where Mao proclaimed the establishment of the People's Republic of China. Mao's Red Book is nowhere to be seen.

In a complex society such as China's, Deng undoubtedly faces opposition to his policies. There are reports of unhappiness in the armed forces, less favored by his modernization priorities.

Traditional party factions cannot be totally pleased with what he is doing. The objective of recovering territory thus becomes important to the achievement of the objective of modernization.

While Deng himself may well share the Chinese desire to see the ultimate return of Hong Kong, Taiwan, and Macao, he must also see this emphasis as essential to modifying the opposition to his plans for modernization and closer ties with the West.

One leaves China after a brief visit, therefore, with a sense that how the US responds to the immediate pressure on Taiwan and how the United Kingdom and China ultimately resolve the future of Hong Kong may determine not only the relations of these countries with the People's Republic, but the future course of China's internal policies as well.

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