When Lincolin Steffens returned from Russia in 1919 after viewing the Bolshevik Revolution, he proclaimed, "I have seen the future and it works."

Today, having just returned from a 17-day visit to post-Mao China, the most I can say is that the direction of China's future is being drastically altered, but whether, or how, it will work is something else again.

The Sino-American normalization agreement announced Friday is, of course, a major step for the Chinese in that altering of direction. It is also part of a game of high strategy involving China, the United States and the Soviet Union.

But to a visitor, the reality of China's cities and, above all, its countryside, where at least 80 percent of the people live, is an overwhelming sense of poverty, of hard labor and of what amounts to personal imprisonment in the communist system. China is the biggest company town the world has ever known.

Yet to say that alone, to criticize the gap between plans and fulfillment, to point to a long list of China's shortcomings is to take a very lopsided view. For China today offers, I would venture, a better shake in life to more of its hundreds of millions of people than ever has been the case in its centuries of recorded history.

The communist regime, despite all the upheavals and convulsions since it came to power, has at least and at last created an egalitarianism of poverty, a minimum of food, clothing and shelter, that is in sharp contrast to the inequities and inequalities of the "old China."

It is precisely because efforts to move further ahead, to rise above such minimal levels and standards, are now deemed by the standards, are now deemed by the Peking regime to require a massive infusion of outside heop that the majority in the leadership has turned to the capitalist world of the United States, Japan and Western Europe. It is a judgment with which I would certainly concur.

Each visitor to China today is likely to have his point of comparison, of reference: how things differ from America or from a comparably populous and poor nation, such as India, or from the other communist giant, the Soviet Union. My own chief benchmark, however, is the "old China" of the half year just before World War II began in 1939, a half year I spent there when the Japanese controlled, by armed force, most of the cities and the connecting railroads but little of the countryside. At that time, the white man's foreign "concessions," wrung from imperial China largely at the point of a gun, were still a fact of life-and there was a detail each morning to pick up the dead bodies from the streets of Shanghai's International Settlement, then controlled by the British with American help.

Looked at from that perspective, today's China has ended mass starvation, mastered previously uncontrolled disastrous floods, embarked on reforestation of vast areas so long barren, instituted with its paramedic "barefoot doctors" a form of national health care however often it is minimal and primitive, brought electricity to so many places that never had it before and instituted a system by which a single language, what we call Mandarin Chinese, already is becoming the common tongue.

But there is so much more to do-and so many shortfalls in every one of the gains. It is the recognition of this that is now working its way down from the Chinese leadership to the bureaucracy and party cadres on whom so much depends. One would never have expected to hear Chinese talk to foreigners of their nation's "backwardness," but that is what we heard at both the agricultural communes and urban factories. It is a wrenching change from both the ancient notion of China as the center of the world and from Mao's insistence on national self-reliance, once he broke with his Russian comrades.

And yet, so far at least, it is now all being done in Mao's name, "according to his precepts" one is told. Mao is deified; his portrait is everywhere, with second-level prominence for the current chairman, Hua Kuo-feng,followed by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Stalin. Mao's birthplace near Changsha in southern China is reached by special train; his tomb in Peking's Tienanmen Square, where hushed crowds file past his body, is the national shrine.

By contrast, there are no portraits as far as we could see of Teng Hsiaoping, no cult of personality being created about the scrappy 74-year-old leader who surely is the critical figure in China's new direction. It is Teng, not Hua, who is coming to the United States next month after diplomatic relations are established.

It is because Teng and his allies now in power have ended the years of ideological purity represented by the "Gang of Four" and that group's seeming manipulation of the senile Mao in his final years that, one ventures to say, the direction of China's future can be dimly seen. It is Teng and his men who have suddenly opened China to the world, seeking aid, credits, expertise and just about everything else. It is a gigantic gamble to make a reality of their dream of a modernized China.

The murky nature of much of what the outside world knows of internal Chinese power struggles instantly raises the question-it is now the key question among the foreign diplomats in Peking-of whether what Teng has done is irreversible. Or will there be a backlash, another return to the xenophobic eras of the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, whose sum of accomplishments was to see China lag even further behind?

A sampling of some of those Chinese who have some say in management of the national enterprise leaves one with feeling that they are exhausted from such past aberrations and desperately hope that the new policies will last so that proclaimed goals for the year 2000 can be achieved. The logic of it all is that these people surely must want the new order to last.

But communist systems all share the same great weakness: a lack of a legitimacy of succession. Power does grow out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao said, and force is the final arbiter of politics in a communist state. If there are hidden tensions within the regime in Peking, as is widely believed, then the normalization agreement surly must add to them.

And so one can only suggest after a look at today's China that perhaps the odds do favor Teng's pragmatic policies, that perhaps they have a reasonable chace to survive him. For the sake of the people of China, one must hope so.