There is something like a conspiracy of silence in the West about the absence of human rights in China. One reason we don't seem to care about human rights in China is that few of us know it is an issue. Peking is far better than Moscow at hiding the facts.

Most of the Western journalists who go to China have nothing to say on the problem because they report only what they see - and they are shown nothing detrimental to the regime. Most Western governments say nothing about human rights in China because they don't want to upset the Peking regime. China scholars from the West who are invited by Peking do know about the suppression of human rights, but most of them say nothing about it. They want to be invited again.

There are those who say that the Chinese people are naturally submissive, restrained, disciplined. The peasant rebellions that are such a marked feature of Chinese history are enough to refute the argument that the Chinese are naturally submissive. The Communist revolution is only the most widespread and the most recent of these rebellions. As for their "discipline," when Mao took the lid off during the Cultural Revolution in the '60s, the complaints and resentment at the party's iron rule often boiled over into sheer anarchy.

One of the most notable cases of Chinese "restraint" was reported after the death of Premier Chou En-lai, when the West accepted so readily the story that the people of China were showing no emotion because it was "not in their nature" to do so. In fact, every show of emotion was suppressed because the "Gang of Four," which was then in charge in Peking, regarded Chou as an enemy. Attempts by Peking's citizens to honor Chou's memory were cut short by the police. Only after the "Gang" was overthrown were the people allowed to show their grief - and they took full advantage of the change by mounting spontaneous public demonstrations in the center of Peking.

Given half a chance, the people of China are as keen to enjoy the human freedoms, which President Carter has made into an international issue, as any other people. In 1957, when Mao Tse-tung launched the Hundred Flowers campaign, which briefly allowed some freedom of expression, there was an upsurge of protests against those features of the regime that mark it as a police state. Many intellectuals demanded the freedom to criticize the Communist Party and to form opposition parties and called for free elections.

Just over three years ago a Canton poster that extended over 100 yards of wall space denounced the new ruling class for using its political power to grab a privileged position and to suppress the bulk of the nation. The people, it said, "demand democracy. They demand a socialist legal system. And they demand the revolutionary rights and the human rights that protect the masses of the people."

We will never know how prevalent such demands are, just as we do not know how many people have been executted for political crimes in recent months. All we know is that Western travelers in China have occasionally seen public notices announcing the execution of "criminals" whose transgressions were clearly political - and that Chinese officials have denied that any such executions have taken place. With so much of China closed to Western visitors, there is every reason to assume that the few dozen executions that have become known during the past year were only a small proportion of the total that were carried out.

But it is the less dramatic actions that cause the greatest suffering. Chinese officials still stick to Mao's formula that 5 percent of the people are "reactionaries" and that, as such, they are not entitled even to those rights that are supposed to be enjoyed by the rest. In a nation of 900 million, 5 percent would account for 45 million people. One of the few Western journalists who dared confront a Chinese official with a question about the 5 percent, William Safire of The New York Times, at least managed to extract an embarrassed acknowledgment that perhaps the figures might be somewhat less than the percentages suggest.

But Ross Munro of the Toronto Globe and Mail, the only Peking-based reporter to write a series of articles on human rights in China - and to be expelled for it - estimates that about 30 million Chinese are still classed as "rich peasants" because they owned a few acres of land and had a few hired laborers before the Communists came to power. The "rich peasants" are second-class citizens, receiving between 10 and 20 percent less pay than others doing the same work. The sins of the fathers are visited on the children, whose entry to schools is restricted. Their families are not entitled to the free medical care, such as it is, available to other Chinese. Several million "reactionaries" are still confined in "reform" prisons.

Yet Peking propaganda waxes indignant over the denial of human rights in Russia and on Taiwan, whose regimes would appear to be much milder, by any standard, than that of China. Official Western criticism of those two regimes is not paralleled by any such Western criticism of Communist China. The Carter administration, which would like to be seen as the standard-bearer of the movement for human rights, claims that its officials have taken every opportunity to press the leaders of other nations on this issue.

But they have put no pressure on the Chinese leaders, beyond asking that Chinese relatives should be allowed to join members of their families in the United States. Nor do other Western governments go further than Washington in this matter.

But the Carter administration has made human rights a worldwide issue. While Western governments may find it politically inconvenient to debate the subject with Peking, the moral issue cannot be shirked. The Chinese are as human as the rest of us. To shut our eyes to the suppression of human rights in China is to display the same timidity as many people in the West displayed when Hitler and Stalin suppressed human rights in their own countries. When moral issues are shirked, they have a way of turning into political issues.