No one would have guessed, when Chairman Mao was China's ''Great Helmsman,'' that Australian and English journalists would travel to Peking as ''advisers'' to China's first English-language newspaper.
But that is exactly what has happened.
As a result China's only English-language newspaper, the China Daily, now offers visiting businessmen, tourists, diplomats, and overseas Chinese a mixture of Chinese and international news, culled from both Chinese sources and the Associated Press.
The China Daily's Western-style format means China has joined the ranks of many other Asian nations, where visitors can find a locally printed English-language morning paper either at the newsstand or conveniently slipped under their hotel doors.
The China Daily draws on the Associated Press and China's official New China News Agency (Xinhua) to soothe homesick American businessmen with a diet of American League and National League baseball scores. There may also be soccer from London or basketball from Kansas City, wrapped up with more hometown items such as ''Chinese diving team to leave for US.''
The paper is not so comprehensive or authoritative on Chinese news and politics as the Chinese-language People's Daily. But since the newspaper first hit the streets in mid-1981, visitors who want to keep informed have found English translations of authoritative articles on politics, economics, and foreign policy, including selections from the People's Daily.
The English-language China Daily is not printed or widely distributed in North America. But those who are interested can subscribe. The airmail edition runs a little more than $200 a year. Anyone wanting to subscribe can contact China Books and Periodicals or write directly to the newspapers' offices in Peking.
The China Daily was started with the assistance of temporary ''foreign expert'' journalists contributed by the Melbourne Age newspaper group in Australia and the Thomson Foundation in the United Kingdom. This is one reason the format and style are often reminiscent of any number of English-language publications in the United Kingdom, Australia, or the British colony of Hong Kong.
The placement and length of stories as well as style of writing make no secret that the paper's ''news judgment'' is heavily shaped by the Communist Party's current policy.
A former ''foreign expert'' at the China Daily has written, ''As a 'foreign friend' one was only rarely aware of the hand of the party in editorial decisionmaking.''
David Dodwell, of London's Financial Times, has noted in his newspaper: ''In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at the extent of editorial freedom allowed to the staff. Only occasionally did one come face to face with the authoritarian aspect of Chinese society.''
But Mr. Dodwell noted that the party did make its presence known by regular briefings of staff, as well by other means such as the two-day study course that every Chinese staffer had to attend to study the documents and conclusions of a Communist Party congress. Later everyone took an examination on how well they had absorbed the main directives from the congress.
According to Mr. Dodwell, one of the paper's problems has been a shortage of trained, experienced English-language journalists. He wrote that all but a tiny handful of the staff are linguists plucked out of an expected career as teachers , interpreters, or translators. They are assigned, instead, to ''a profession of which they know nothing, and which has no traditional roots in China.''
Mr. Dodwell observed that China Daily journalists did try to generate their own stories, but the process rarely took less than two weeks. He added that many of these stories languished after failing to get the needed approval of the appropriate government ministry.
As a result, he says, the main sources of news and information are still formal briefings called at the discretion of government ministries or state corporations. Mr. Dodwell concludes that these organizations are still not used to the Western journalistic practice of answering reporters' queries as they come.