The Chinese public is barely aware of the Iran-contra hearings and press coverage has been sparse and narrowly focused. Except for the late-night, English-language television news - which has carried regular excerpts from the congressional testimony of Lt. Col. Oliver North and Rear Adm. John Poindexter - only three reports have appeared in the party's national newspaper, the People's Daily, this month since Colonel North's testimony began.
The reports have focused on the question of what President Reagan knew and when and whether there was sufficient evidence to impeach him. A dispatch by the official New China News Agency last week quoted Sen. Daniel Inouye (D) of Hawaii saying the senator thought the investigation would not end with an impeachment.
This may have been the key question for informed Chinese observers. In 1973, a little over a year after Richard Nixon made his historic trip to China, Chinese leaders were perplexed and dismayed when Mr. Nixon was forced to resign the presidency rather than face impeachment over the Watergate scandal.
In Chinese eyes, Nixon is the one American who did the most to bring China out of isolation and confer international respect on the Peking government. President Reagan is also a hard-won friend who paid a highly successful visit here in 1984. Many people see him as a strong leader who is generally friendly toward China.
For some Chinese who have seen the coverage of the hearings on the English-language television channel, the response was quite similar to the American public's.
``People don't understand what's going on but they are impressed by [Col. North's] personality,'' said one young professional who regularly watches the English news on China Central Television.