Premier Zhao Ziyang, preparing to visit Washington next week, emphasized that China would not sacrifice principle over the contentious issue of Taiwan. The premier met United States and Canadian journalists in a relaxed, discursive interview in the eastern hall of the Great Hall of the People here.
China does not put the Soviet Union in the same boat with the US when it opposes ''superpower hegemonism,'' Zhao said. ''The Chinese people know better than the Americans from where the threat to our security comes. In this regard, we do not equate the United States with the Soviet Union.''
Zhao, natty in a brown business suit with beige shirt and subdued green and white polka dot tie, also stressed the complementarity of the Chinese and American economies. Calling the US the ''biggest developed country'' and China the ''biggest developing country,'' Zhao talked of China's ''untapped resources and markets'' and of the US ''capital and technology.'' Economic cooperation between two such countries, he said, had a significance far surpassing the bilateral dimension and capable of having a huge impact on the entire world.
But Zhao made clear that Taiwan will be very much on his mind when he meets President Reagan in the White House Jan. 10. He expressed concern over the level of US arms sales to Taiwan, which he said violated the joint communique of Aug. 17, l982, that future arms sales would not exceed the quantity or the quality of arms supplied to Taiwan since Peking and Washington established full diplomatic relations in January 1979.
''The Chinese people are most unhappy,'' Zhao said. Still, Peking had not taken a ''drastic approach'' over this matter, recognizing that American relations with Taiwan were ''a legacy of history.'' The premier said he had no intention of asking President Reagan to stop ''immediately and completely'' all arms sales to Taiwan. This showed that he is prepared to go quite far to accommodate the US.
For China, nevertheless, Taiwan is a question of sovereignty, of national reunification. While showing understanding for the ''legacy of history,'' China would never sacrifice principle. ''Friends are friends, and state relations are state relations,'' Zhao said. ''These are fundamentally different in nature.''
''China is not against the United States maintaining economic trade and cultural relations with the people of Taiwan,'' Zhao said. ''But we don't accept the practice of regarding Taiwan as a political entity. . . .''
Zhao was relaxed and in good humor. He seemed eager to get across the idea that China was not being unreasonable over Taiwan, that it was doing its utmost to achieve peaceful reunification, but that it would never concede an independent political status to the island, regarding all attempts to accord official status to Taiwan as interference in China's internal affairs.
As for relations with the two superpowers, he said, ''We are prepared to develop relations with the United States on a long-term, stable basis,'' while with the Soviet Union, ''although we are against Soviet hegemonism, we are willing to deal with them. We also hope US-Soviet relations will improve.''
No Chinese premier has paid an official visit to the US before. Zhao said he was looking forward to his trip, which would take him to ''beautiful Hawaii, the 50th state,'' to Washington and New York, and to San Francisco - ''old gold mountain'' to Chinese who emigrated there during the gold rush of the mid-19th century.