JAY MATHEWS, The Washington Post correspondent, was robbed of his money and credit cards while stationed in China. In that respect, his book destroys another of those old myths about communist China to which the older generation of the West still optimistically clings. But in most other respects, this is not a book which stands out in the "our fifteen months in China" genre. It is virtually impossible now to be original in writing comprehensively about the current condition of that huge phenomenon, Chinese society, without repeating anecdotes which have already appeared in other correspondents' books or embroidering analytical threads used by many previous hands. If only, from today, foreign correspondents in China would cease to regard it as a test of manhood to produce a general book after reassignment from Peking, and would choose instead a specialized area to write about in a little more depth and detail.

The theme to which Jay and Linda Mathews most address themselves is that the Chinese people are oppressed by a privileged, corrupt and inefficient bureaucracy, but that they have become skilled at avoiding the worst consequences of this. On the surface there is the China of the hierarchical line of command, operated by rank-conscious bigwigs who issue detailed instructions about how poeple should live and work with no respect for the rule of law, morality or justice. But underneath there lurks that other China of the backdoor, the alternative economy, and the methodology of avoiding restrictions on your life through inventiveness and persistence.

The image containing this idea is the struggle between the commissars and consumers of Canton over watching the TV programs from Hong Kong. When the authorities banned the special TV antennas that enable the Chinese in Canton to see noncommunist fare on their screens, they dutifully obeyed -- but after dark they would crawl up to their rooms and temporarily reconnect the equipment for the night's viewing, and eventually the officials gave up.

It is an irony that China, whose invention of the bureaucracy was hailed by Europeans of two or three centuries ago as a marvelous deliverance from feudalism and a giant step forward in the advance of mankind to modernity, should now suffer more than any other nation from the failings of bureaucracy. The Matthews retail many stories illustrating the proliferation of forms and other examples of bureaucratic inefficiency.

And so is created the "backdoor" phenomenon, at whose apex stand the "the three treasures" -- doctors, butchers and even truck drivers. These are the callings most apt to provide an ordinary Chinese with the occasional treat or valuable service that he wants. So, the Mathews conclude, while the Chinese resent "the oppression and inconvenience of their form of government," they prefer to "finesse it rather than challenge it outright."

But what a price has to be paid for this thick layer of parasites that lies across the body of China -- the secrecy, even extending to such basic information as telephone numbers and addresses; the disregard for truth that becomes commonplace. The Mathews quote the story by the novelist Ding Ling, that where two people meet in China, they talk frankly: "when there are three they tell jokes, and when there are four they tell lies." Actually the Mathews slightly overwork this particular point. They describe with some indignation how their Chinese interpreter, after they had left China, was asked by another American journalist to whom he was assigned, if he knew any other American correspondents. He said, "No, not one." To the Mathews this was an inexplicable lie, and also perhaps a personal betrayal. But an interpreter in a totalitarian country has a difficult enough time dealing with an inquisitive foreign customer without inviting the kind of complications that can ensue if you admit to having common friends and acquaintances. I find the interpreter's action natural and explicable, though sad in the larger context of the Chinese cultural dilemma.

Racial consciousness is another of China's weak points. This book reminds us how the late premier Chou En-lai on his first visit to Africa thanked the Sudanese for killing Charles George Gordon, the British general, whose burning of the old Summer Palace in Peking in 1860 is still remembered with anger. As the Mathews put it, the Chinese "are among the world's most racist people."

Inevitably there are many pages in this book about the burgeoning of Chinese enterprise in the post-Mao era. The appallingly unbusinesslike attitudes of most of the officials who are middlemen between Western traders and Chinese producers are well illustrated. "Come back this afternoon," to an American inquiring for sales brochures. When an offshore oil rig overturned, it transpired tha the bureau responsible had not translated the key operating instructions into Chinese, had transferred one man who had asked for better safety preparations and criticized those who belabored technical problems as being "afraid of difficulties." Yet there is little here about the flowering of enterprise in the communes.

Meanwhile the inexorable march of population goes on. At the present rate of population growth, the Chinese "could march single file into the Yellow Sea forever without causing the slightest decrease in China's total population." And in another notable statistical observation, it is pointed out that the Chinese have to dispose of 70 million corpses, equivalent to the population of Germany, every year.

Another good myth-demolishing chapter is that on xiu-xi, the Chinese siesta of two to three hours every afternoon which is enshrined in Article 49 of the new constitution. Even an oil rig stops drilling for the siesta, to the astonishment of American engineers. A Singapore businessman reported seeing communist Chinese asleep at their lathes. "Life under socialism," he commented, "has done what I would never have thought possible. The communists have taken a naturally industrious people and made them lazy." And there is no lack of Chinese observers to echo the point. "Our biggest problem is the lack of a real work ethic, especially among the young." The siesta would have to be recognized eventually as "a luxury we cannot afford . . . It's a barrier to efficiency." So, at the beginning of their prospective entry into the world development race, where the Chinese were thought to have all the advantages of Japan a century ago, it turns out they have a fatal handicap.

Another nettle which Mao's generation was unable to grasp was the reform of the language, which it is agreed does not sit well with modern education and industrial life, and yet the Chinese remain "entranced by the beauty of written characters" regardless of the growing illiteracy of the young -- who have to spend so much time learning these beautiful characters.

There is now much bitterness about those lost opportunities. The Mathews describe a comic sketch put on in China where actors perform an "autopsy" on Jiang Qing, Mao's widow, and leader of the Gang of Four, cutting open her stomach with an imaginary scalpel to find it full of worms which they frantically chase all over the stage, stamping them out.

To have spilt all that blood and not to have achieved the necessary revolution is China's tragedy. They often debate, the Mathews report, "just how much they are ruled by their urge for consensus, and how much by their individual needs." The Chinese word for liberty is one which means literally "one's own motives" and would often be interpreted as connoting selfishness. To be yourself is indeed to be selfish, and the Chinese are not ready for that. They have built a halfway house in which they can be themselves to the minimum extent necessary, on the occasions really required, and to that extent they are willing to tolerate their present oppression. If they are right, another revolution may not be necessary; the bureaucrats may simply waste away, gradually outshone by the new entrepreneurs spreading from the farmlands into the towns and cities. But it is hard to think that the bureaucrats will not put up a fight.