Chinese Vice-Premier Li Peng asked an American publishing executive what book was at the top of the best-seller list in the United States. But before the publisher could answer, the Soviet-trained vice-premier said, ``I'll tell you: it's `Iacocca.' I've read it and enjoyed it very much.''
Publishing sources say that ``Iacocca,'' a biography of Chrysler chairman Lee Iacocca, has sold hundreds of thousands of copies in Chinese translation.
If a top Chinese leader is moved by the life story of one of America's most well-known successful managers, what does that say about the attitudes of China's political elite?
One answer might be that the country's new leaders are captivated by success and are willing to learn from the example of anyone who has achieved it, whatever his ideological background.
Vice-Premier Li may also have taken a page from one of several books published this week on the 10th anniversary of Mao Tse-tung's death. Under the heading, ``Reading: Mao Tse-tung's Favorite Hobby,'' one of the books presents an exemplary picture of Mao's eclectic reading habits from a personal library said to have contained some 90,000 volumes.
The book has been recommended to the Chinese public in an effort to wrench from the chairman's life qualities that suit China's new climate of thought.
But even without such encouragement, Chinese interests range more broadly these days than was ever permitted under Mao. One measure of this is the inquiries of visitors at the first International Book Fair in Peking this month. ``Their interests know no limits,'' said Fred Kobrak, a New York publisher who spent a week answering visitors' questions at his company's booth in the exhibition hall.
``They're ordering everything from `The Social Psychology of Clothing' to `Kennedy in Vietnam,' '' he said, referring to recent works by authors Susan Kaiser and William J. Rust, respectively.
China's thirst for the latest in Western thinking and knowledge is not new, but it has been deepened by several decades of isolation. The present turning outward -- unprecedented since the communists came to power in 1949 -- is an important change for this profoundly self-oriented society. It shows that the anti-foreign attitudes that peaked in the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) have subsided and that Peking's approval of learning from the West appeals to the ambitions of many Chinese. It also implies a new self-awareness:
``Before the death of Chairman Mao, people here didn't know much about the outside world,'' said a Peking intellectual. ``They had a very dark picture. They thought people out there were exploited by capitalists, that they were starving, without clothes to wear. Now we can see that their life is better than ours,'' the intellectual said, adding that China's young people want to know why. ``The only thing we can say [to young people] is that socialism is still superior to capitalism, but that we have made mistakes.''
This new realism has been hard-won. In part, it has been required of Chinese leaders by popular attitudes toward the government. Chinese are demanding more reason and openness about where China stands in relation to the world and its own past. Realism is also necessary if the Communist Party is to restore its credibility, which was virtually destroyed by Mao.
Asked what was the most significant change in China since Mao's death 10 years ago, one Peking newspaper editor said it was the presence of cynicism. ``People are cynical about their past and skeptical about the present,'' he said.
The loss of faith in government and an inclination to ask ``why'' of party decisions indicates a new maturity in popular attitudes toward authority, another Chinese intellectual said. It is a further breakdown, he said, of the Confucian tradition that ``father knows best.''
These attitudes are a common legacy of Mao's rule among Chinese in their 30s and 40s. Among a few members of the older generation, which experienced the high tide of communist idealism in the early 1950s and the disasters that came afterwards, there is sometimes a more balanced view.
One senior education official who had been a respected university professor before the Cultural Revolution told a recent visitor how she spent most of the Cultural Revolution years in the countryside pushing a manure cart and living on a subsistence diet.
``I came to know the misery and poverty of the rural areas,'' she said. Insisting that she wouldn't want to repeat that experience, she added, ``But how can you take away such education?''
If the state must deal with a public generally more skeptical of authority and more critical of its leaders, it must keep an eye on the popular appeal of things foreign. The traditional notion of the ``purity'' of the Chinese way of appears to some to be under seige.
When party officials denounce corruption in Chinese commercial life, they often mention foreign businessmen in the same breath. There is also concern that immoral behavior and pornography are being imported from abroad and could undermine society.
But for now, this wariness of the outside world is overshadowed by its attractiveness, especially by the prospects of travel and study abroad for a handful of fortunate people.
``The United States has become our new Shaoshan,'' said a young professional woman. For young people of the 1980s, she said, a pilgrimage to universities in the West has replaced the Cultural Revolution pilgrimages to Mao's birthplace and other revolutionary sites.
For many who go abroad, it is an adventure offering opportunities for learning, which are scarce or nonexistent at home and which they will share when they return. For some others, it has been an escape from unbearable memories and relationships and an opportunity to start a new life. Either way, China's openness to the outside world is a profound change for a country trying to make good a revolution begun decades ago.
Last of a series. Previous articles ran Sept. 9-11.