China's two most influential leaders have revealed for the first time what appear to be sharp differences over the issue of education, the cause of much political turmoil during the last two decades.

In a lengthy speech to a national science conference, Communist Party Chairman Hua-Kuo-feng seemingly challenged a program conducted by Vice-Chairman Teng Hsiao-ping to soft-pedal political study and quickly train a technical elite to save the economy.

It is impossible to say where this difference of opinion will lead. Similar differences of opinion such as the contradictory statements of Mao Tse-tung and the then President Liu Shao-chi in the 1960s preceded the Cultural Revolution, the most disruptive political turmoil in China's recent past.

Observers here believe that the Chinese leadership at his stage would seek to prevent any serious disruptions, particularly since it has just begun to recover from factional fighting and economic troubles in 1976.

But Hua's speech seems to signal that he is not entirely in agreement with the line being pursued under Teng's direction and may in years hence, after the economy gets stronger, assert his opinion against those of the older bureaucrats like Teng who now seem to hold sway.

Until Mao annointed Hua as his successor, the former provincial bureaucrat had only five years' experience in Peking and was virtually unknown outside China.

The issue of "elitism, as Teng's approach toward education is called, involves significant ideological and political consequences.

"We need a mighty force in industry, agriculture, science and technology, culture and national defense," Hua said in his speech. "It won't do to have only a small number or a section of the people. Hundreds of millions of people, the entire Chinese nation, must reach a higher level."

Hua's March 24 warning against elitism, released here by the New China News Agency, came six days after Teng reaffirmed the new policy in his own speech to the science conference in Peking.

"We must take up the important task of training in the shortest possible time a group of experts in science and technology who are first rate by world standards," Teng said.

It was the first time Hua, 57, had clearly differed with the more experienced Teng, 74, on policy in the eight months they have ruled at the top of the post-Mao Chinese Hiearchy. Although they complimented each other in their speeches, their words suggest the potential for a revival someday of a debate that has severely split the Chinese leadership several times and brought great political and economic turmoil in the last two decades.

Hua's and Teng's political differences have so far been confined to a few veiled newspaper attacks by Teng's supporters on Politburo members close to Hua who participated in a 1976 campaign against Teng. The two men appear strongly committed to forestalling any open disagreement that would interfere with their shared goal of rapid economic modernization.

In his speech, Hua strongly identifies himself with the view his predecessor, Mao Tse-tung, often expressed in his latter years.Mao said efforts to build the economy should concentrate on mobilizing the talents of millions of peasants and workers and not just a talented few.

Hua's speech hits at a probable weakness in new, Teng inspired politicies like the national college entrance examination. The exam gives an advantage to city-educated youths and may cause resentment among peasant youth who cannot prepare adequately because they do not have as many or as vell-equipped high schools in the countryside.

"It is in the vital interest of hundreds of millions of people to raise the scientific and cultural level of the entire Chinese nation," Hua said. "This can be achieved only by drawing in and relying on vast numbers of people, only by effectively organizing all the people on all fronts on a countrywide scale."

In his March 18 speech, on the other hand, Teng said that he had Hua's support for "laying strong emphasis on training and selecting talented people . . . The discovery or training of talented people by our scientists and teachers is in itself an achievement and a contribution to the state. The history of science shows what great results can be produced in the filed of science from the discovery of a genuinely talented person!"

The daily political discussion and study that Mao used to insist on should be curtailed, Teng's speech suggested. Many official press reports have indicated this has already been done.

"We cannot demand that scientists and technicians, or at any rate, the overwhelming majority of them, study a lot of political and theoretical books, participate in numerous social activities and attend many meetings not related to their work," Teng said.

Hua, who heads both the party and government, took a different tack: "We hope our scientists and technicians will keep raising their political consciousness, serve socialism whole-heartedly and integrate with the workers, peasants and soldiers while at the same time devoting themselves to their professional work."

"Politics is the commander, the soul grasp political and ideological work," Hua said, adding that technical knowledge is also necessary.

Hua made no mention of the new rule promising scientists and technicians that at least five-sixths of their work time will be free of political meetings and other nonscientific obligations. Teng called this "a minimum demand" and said "it is still better if even more time is available" or scientific pursuits.

The two men also seemed to differ on the amount of automony scientists should have in running their laboratories. Teng said "we should give the director and deputy directors of research institutes a free hand in the work of science and technology" while Hua said "the modernization of science and technology should not be regarded as a matter only for scientific and technological organizations, nor should it be left to a few people in research institutions or universities."

Both Hua and Teng appeared to agree completely on the need to study foreign scientific advances and buy some foreign equipment to accelerate Chinese progress. Teng was particularly blunt about the sorry state of Chinese technology compared to the West.

"Backwardness must be perceived before it can be changed," he said