China's first trade exhibitions in this country -- slated for later this year in San Francisco, Chicago and New York -- are in jeopardy because the New York promoter has not raised sufficient money, according to Commerce Department and private business sources.

"The only way that it might fly," says Christopher Phillips, president of the National Council for U.S.-China Trade, "is if (the promoter) gets additional corporate contributions or if the Chinese put up some of the money themselves."

The promoter of the project, Gilbert A. Robinson, chairman of the U.S.-China Business Development Council in New York, flatly denies that the project is in trouble. "Everything is on schedule. We'll open on time in San Francisco on September 13," he says.

But Phillips' council -- set in 1973 with government blessing as a private channel before normalization of relations to promote trade -- has serious doubts.

"The Chinese went to Robinson because he took all the financial risk, and they didn't have to put up a dime (to put on pre-exhibitions). I hope they've learned from this that you can't expect something for nothing," Phillips says.

At its annual board meeting on Wednesday, the council, which includes representatives of hundreds of top corporations, considered two formal proposals: either the designation of a senior staff member to join Robinson in managing the exhibitions or assigning Phillips to drum up contributions from members companies. The board rejected both ideas.

Robinson's plan, as he and others explained it, is to finance the approximate $4.7 million cost of the trade fairs by admissions fees and other revenues, plus about $1.2 million consisting of six contributions of $200,000 each from major corporations.

"This would help them get in n the ground floor in doing business with the Chinese," Robinson explained in a telephone interview yesterday.

There was to be tie-in for the six major contributors, with a special Trade Fair magazine section to be produced by the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune and (for limited circulation) The Washington Post.

("In the dream stage," says a Washington Post executive, "it was to run in ten markets; with a circulation close to 10 million." The plan called for 96 pages at $100,000 a page for a four-color ad. Presently, scaled-down plans are for a 24-page section.)

But Robinson concedes that, although he has approached 40 to 50 major corporations, he has signed up only one -- in the aviation industry -- for a contribution of less than $200,000.

When one of the three banks that

The San Francisco-based Crocker National Bank, after advancing Robinson $190,000, pulled out. At that point, a second bank -- the First National of Chicago -- at least temporarily slowed its payments. The lead bank of the venture, Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. of New York, apparently hasn't slowed or changed its commitments. t

Meanwhile, Robinson -- who says, "You'll always have critics snipping at you from the sidelines" -- claimed that he had partially replaced the withheld Crocker funds by a new advance of $250,000 from Midlantic Banks Ins. of West Orange, N.J.

"We're going to have enough money," he said in the telephone interview, "and I have some private contributors standing in the wings if I need to call them." There is plenty of time, he insists, to get additional major corporate contributions, hinting that one new participant might be lined up as early as tomorrow. In sum, Robinson said, the project "is a certainty -- it's not in jeopardy."

Robinson pictures himself as an early friend of China who showed an interest even before normalization. "That's something the Chinese appreciate," he noted. He conducted the first group of East Coast businessmen to China in June of 1978 when he was chairman of the New York Board of Trade Inc.

Robinson rejects Phillips' characterization of the deal -- the Chinese getting something for nothing -- as totally wrong. In the first place, he says, the Chinese are spending " a couple of million in freight and customs duties."

But beyond that, he argued, "our concept was grander (than other exhibition proposals). We've got them to send over Imperial armor from the Imperial palace, and an entire art gallery of contemporary paintings."

There also are scheduled to be exhibition performances by Mongolian acrobats, demonstration by jade and ivory artisans and a Peking branch post office -- complete with a commemorative stamp issue -- set up at each of the trade fairs.

Robinson has two major partners, for this venture -- Luiz O. Themudo of FOCO International, a professional organizer of fairs and exhibitions, and Arne J Keijzer, a Chinese specialist and author of a well-know guide book.

Phillips says that Robinson could not convince financial executives of corporations of the soundness of his proposals.

Commerce Department officials in general support the Phillips views and assessment, pointing out that Robinson wasn't on a list of eight professional exhibition experts they recommended to Chinese government officials.

Under a trade exhibition agreement signed last year with China, the U.S. obligation stops short of helping to finance such fairs here.

Even so, it was learned, the Commerce Department has agreed to transfer $40,000 to the Interior Department to help provide security personnel if Robinson succeeds in opening his exhibition at the Fort Mason Foundation (near San Francisco's waterfront) which is run in conjunction with the National Park Service.

Government officials fear that if the exhibitions don't go forward -- or are seriously delayed -- it would be a blow to over-all U.S.-China relations. The United States has its own trade fair -- government-financed -- scheduled for Peking in November.