On Nov. 2, 1976, in Peking, a certain Ran Kao-chien, a 22-year-old worker in a printing plant, stole a jeep in front of a hotel. He drove it ineptly down the street, knocking over a woman on a bicycle, then piling into a telephone pole. He tried to run away from the wreck but was captured by his fellow citizens.

Ran Kao-chein's trial last year was observed by a group of mostly black American judges and lawyers. Three of the party have published accounts of it and other aspects of the Chinese judicial system in the April issue of Juris Doctor magazine. So far as is known, this is the first time since the revolution that Americans have been able to see the workings of Chinese communist justice first hand.

The first thing of interest is that in China the defendant doesn't "go to court." Court goes to the defendant. The trial was held in the factory where Ran Kao-chien works. It appears the Chinese criminal justice system tries to keep the defendants as much as possible in their working and living milieu.

Thus while the presiding judge came from outside the printing plant, her two assistants on the bench were the factory's political commissar and a fellow worker of Kao-chien's. The joy-riding culprit had no lawyer. According to the visiting Americans, lawyers are almost unknown in China, so perhaps communism is a more advanced society. Instead, Kao-chien was represented by a executive in his factory and a fellow worker.

There are no rules of evidence as we understand them, nor any of the trickery and argumentative chicanery we associate with the profession of law. Anybody who has anything germane to say - hearsay or opinion - is listened to. In that sense the trial resembled the ancient justice of England when a similar latitude was permitted.

Such produres don't offend justice when most of the participants know each other and can make allowances and discounts for grudges, favoritism and the like. That's only possible if people live a close community life of the kind that is infrequent here. No word is used more often than community in America, but expressions like the black community, the intelligence community, the plumbing - fixtures-manufacturing community don't denote real community. The word, which still has a favorable connotation, has been appropriated by lobbies, special interest groups and professional and trade associations which have tactical reasons for playing down their true character.

At his trial Kao-chien pleaded guilty and was reproved by his neighbors and co-workers in the audience who told him he had undoubtedly fallen into bad ways because he'd been influenced by the Gang of Four the name given the group that contested for political power and lost to those currently ruling China. The American parallel would be to attribute a young person's crime to the bad influence of president Nixon and his associates. There are endless numbers of proggy-type people defending delinquency by saying, "Well, what can you expect after Watergate?"

Apparently, in both China and America, one way to wiggle out of a stretch in the cooler is to express much contrition, so our Peking car thief is quoted as saying, "My transformation would be helped by studying the works of Marx and Engels." For any American who has ever read Marx and Engels, the statement is unbelievable on its face, but would someone from a Chinese communist civilization be less surprised to learn how impressed we are when our own convicts take up Bible study.

One of the things that evidently helped Kao-chien to get two-year suspended sentence was that he was a worker who came from a worker's family. Family background similarly disposes American judges to go easy on our younger criminals. The background we prefer is a middle-class, property-owning one since experience teaches that such people can be most easily controlled and cajoled into socially deisrable behavior. We associate the lower classes with an anonymous, free floating, undisciplined and invisible way of life that may not make law breaking more seductive but does make it easier.

It would seem the Chinese operate the same way only more so. To achieve their very high level of conforming social control, they have fore gone a considerable degree of privacy and indiciduality. By all reports the result is a very low crime rate. We ourselves have achieved extremely low crime rates, and done it while keeping a high measure of individual freedom, but only among our porpoertied groups, groups whose membes do have the support and discipline of a real functioning human community.

There's a lesson here somewhere but you'll have to bite the fortune cookie to find it.