That favorite slogan of Chinese diplomacy - "There is great disorder under heaven and the situation is excellent" - has not been heard lately in Peking, perhaps one more sign that the bit of swashbuckling romance in foreign policy under communist partly Chairman Mao Tse-tung has died with him.
Mao liked change and disorder. He had the audacity to break with the Soviets and take up with the Americans. His dour successors, however, seem unwilling so far to take great chances or stray too far from the general foreign policy lines Mao left them.
What remains is the occasional flash of a Chinese diplomatic-indicates where the Chinese would like to go, but without long, hard follow-up negotiations, little is learned about how they want to get there.
Peking has put out such signals with negligible effect so far in their recent dealings with the United States and the Soviet Union, fellow players in a complex three-cornered game with uncertain rules. A secret Kremlin note to Peking last month seeking improved relations seemed motivated by some recent Chinese signals amid the usual torrent of anti-Soviet propaganda. There was a minor river navigation agreement signed, a new ambassador sent to Moscow, some special prasie for Soviet heroes in the Chinese press.
The note was angrily rejected, however, for Moscow had offered the Chinese no concrete concessions on the crucial border issue. The new Peking leadership was unwilling to risk censure at home for being soft on Moscow just a cosmetic nonagression pact.
Recent gestures toward the United States include Communist Party Chairman Hua Kuo-feng's first personal reference to "points in common" with Washington, a phrase used only when the Chinese have particularly high hopes for U.S. relations. The People's Daily ran a picture of the late American journalist Edgar Snow, and a high-ranking Chinese emergy delegation toured the United States.
But the Chinese signaled no change in their demand for an end to U.S. ties with Taiwan.
The Carter administration, burdened with Panama and the strategic arms limitation talks, had little time, energy or inclination to pursue the more positive Chinese signals energetically.
Officials interviewed recently in Washington say that such signals remain terribly important in dealing with the Chinese, at least when active negotiations are possible or in progress, as they may be next year. The Chinese rarely respond to points directly in face-to-face talks.
"They will not acknowledge that they have absorbed your point and agree with it," said one expert. "They will adjust their policy, but not acknowledge that any adjustment has taken place. They don't betray their eagerness for anything."
Instead of directly responding to the Nixon overtures in 1971, for instance, the Chinese invited the U.S. table tennis team for a visit.
At a recent conference at the University of Michigan, political science Prof. Allen Whiting described a number of the most recent Chinese signals that affect the Peking-Washington relationship. The North Koreans, for instance, have been unleashing particularly vehement attacks on the United States, but the Chinese have been waiting as long as 10 days to two weeks before reprinting them in the People's Daily. Often the People's Daily account appears under a terse headline that says no more than "Korean Statement."
Signals for and against the United States have come and gone, often in a pattern different from the rise and fall of the so-called radicals in Peking who were thought by some to be voracious U.S. critics. In early 1976, when these dogmatic Maosists rode high, the United States was portrayed more favorably than in early 1977, after they had been purged. The Chinese in early 1977 cirticized Washington for being soft on the Soviets and hard on Taiwan, a reflection of their growing impatience then with lack of progress on normalization.
A gratutions footnote to Mao's works in early 1977 described alleged U.S. germ warfare in Korea, even though Mao in the work footnoted had made no reference to germ warfare, Whiting said. Another early 1977 article blamed a 1955 air, crash on "U.S.-Chiang secret agents."
Early this March, while Peking turned its heat on the Soviets, Washington's stock rose and a new reference to the same air crash referred only to "enemy agents."
The Chinese will continue to swing back and forth, Whiting said, and "whether the Russians come first on the northern border or we come first on Taiwan will determine Chinese behavior well into the 1980s."