China's autumn trade fair has ended in Canton after visits by a record number of American traders who, despite only marginal increases in business, are praising new Chinese flexibility.

Chinese sales to U.S. buyers climbed to about $48 million from $40 million at last spring's fair while Chinese purchases of U.S. goods remained at the $20 million level of the last two fairs, according to John Kamm the Hong Kong representative of the National Council for U.S.-China Trade.

American businessmen returning here said the Chinese were far more willing than in recent years to provide attractive packaging and adhere to U.S. product safety rules.

"It was just lovely," said Alvin Florea, a veteran U.S. textile purchaser who found that the often stingy Chinese "offered me so much stuff you could have knocked me over with a tub of lard."

But still sluggish Chinese buying of U.S. goods highlighted the continued problem of competition with more favored European products. Nations like West Germany and the Netherlands, unlike the United States, have full diplomatic relations with Peking, which leads to lower tariff barriers for Chinese goods and friendlier receptions from Chinese Buyers.

There are reports that European steel manufacturers negotiated sales of $300 to $400 million worth of steel to the Chinese, who took advantage of cutrate prices to lower international demand.

Total Chinese purchases of U.S. goods in the first half of this year are estimated at $62 million, barely half of the total for the first half of last year. Trade experts here now say they do not expect those statistics to improve markedly before the year is over, although they still have hopes for next year.

American businessmen are awaiting the results from two major tours of U.S. plants by Chinese trade groups including particularly of all equipment purchasers, earlier this year. "It is my understanding that American representatives are now in Peking engaging in very substantial negotiations that could lead to major sales agreements," Kamm said in a telephone interview from Canton. But he added that such deals, which he declined to specify, could not be expected to affect the trade statistics until late next year.

At this fair Americans heeding reports of another cold winter, started a run on feathers and down, which the Chinese have been particularly stingy with in the last year. Kamm said he thought it a significant sign of continued Chinese interest in U.S. trade that Americans were allowed to buy an estimated 50 per cent of the total available Chinese supply, though at high prices. Other heavy U.S. purchases were in finished textiles, including cotton piece goods and garments, where the Chinese showed new willingness to sew-in American labels.

U.S. businessmen sold the Chinese nonferrous metals, textile machinery and chemicals. Negotiations over specialized chemicals for agriculture and other industries have extended beyond the fair's close, Kamm said.

The Chinese revealed their new scheme to finance domestic development through aggressive overseas sales by flooding U.S. business offices with fair invitations. About 700 Americans, the largest number ever, responded, Kamm said.

Although only a chosen few conducted much business, U.S. experts said the majority made important initial contacts with Chinese trade officials who prefer to deal with people they have known for some time. A total of 30,000 foreigners also a record, attended the fair, a measure of the effort by Chinese officials like Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-Ping to revive foreign trade that had suffered from attacks by Peking dogmatists last year preaching self-reliance.

Kamm said the Chinese surprised porcelain buyers with their willingness to provide styrofoam packing to reduce breakage and see-through containers to encourage retail sales. They also gladly accepted U.S. advice on meeting toughened federal regulations for manufacture of fireworks and toys and packaging of easily contaminated foodstuffs like vichyssoise soup.

Chinese clothing manufacturers, who have frustrated American buyers in the past with late shipments, have now recovered from politically inspired production disruptions "to a point where they can commit themselves to orders," Kamm said.

U.S. businessmen said the Chinese rarely if even raised the subject of stalled diplomatic negotiations between Peking and Washington. One Chinese official was quoted that while the stalemate remained "there will be barriers to trade, but we will do our best to increase trading with American companies."