After almost two weeks of sidewalk speeches on winning economic power through democracy and human rights and wall posters attacking top officials, there is no question a remarkable, difficult-to-silence movement has arisen in China.

The active participants remain a minority. They number only a few thousand and seem confined so far to Peking and Tientsin. But their attack on ageold Chinese authoritarian traditions is likely to echo all over the country as people find voice for grievances against local despots. Most important, this movement is making an un-Chinese effort to contact the outside world, looking now for ways to copy the economic and political success of the West rather than just collect strange spices and colorful birds.

Three decades of Communist Party rule, preceded by years of warlord oppression and more than two millenia of imperial administration, have left Chinese intellectuals seething with frustration. Protests have broken out a few times before, but this may be one of the most publicized and, because of a fortuitous economic crisis, perhaps the one with the best chance of some modest success.

In 1898, a few reformers presuaded a 27-year-old emperor to issue a series of edicts pushing China in the direction of the West. After only 100 days, the emperor's formidable aunt put a stop to it. Democratic reformers enjoyed some brief popularity in a storm of indignation at concessions to Japan after World War I. When the Communist Party had the country safely in hand, Mao Tse-tung experimental in 1957 with encouraging public criticism of his administration. He cut off this "100 flowers" movement and put thousands of outspoken democrats in jail when the attacks on the party itself became too intense.

So, Chinese with long memories have good reason to shy away from the latest explosion of dissent. Diplomats and correspondents in Peking say most of the people exchanging ideas with foreigners and putting up wall posters are in their 30s or younger. Unlike reformers in 1898, 1919 and at the beginning of Mao's Cultural Revolution in 1966, today's critics of China's authoritarian system do not appear to have the advantage of a raging power struggle at the top. Chairman Hua Kuo-feng and Vice Chairman Teng Hsiao-ping, the leaders of the post-Mao government, have their differences but have managed to control them so far. They seem to view the current street debate as little more than a healthy way to let off steam. "If the masses feel some anger, we must let them express it," Teng said Sunday, adding however that "the broad masses demand stability and unity."

Since Mao's death in September 1976 and the subsequent abandonment of favorite Mao policies like economic self-reliance and reduced wage differences, foreigners have been waiting for an open assault on Mao's personal reputation, a Chinese version of the attacks on Stalin after his death in 1953. Wall posters in Peking last week provided the first direct criticism of Mao, for supporting his radical wife Chiang Ching in his declining years. But Teng, who suffered greatly at Mao's hand during that period, rushed to shore up his tormentor's reputation with praise for Mao's historic contributions to the revolution.

A Peking rewrite of Nikita Khrushchev's vehement 1956 attack on Stalin seems a long way off, yet few of Mao's economic and social policies are likely to remain. Instead, the Chinese are moving toward more foreign trade, development of a technical elite and more free-enterprise incentives, such as worker bonuses. They bless those with occasional quotes from the early Mao canon that said, roughly, use anything that works. An underground, egalitarian, Maoist resistance to this pragmatic course remains active, and in the long run it may give the Hua/Teng administration far more trouble than a few thousand neophyte democrats on Peking street corners.

The Chinese Communist Party profits today from the balance and stability provided by Mao's distaste for high level political executions. Teng survived two purges. Wang Tung-hsing, the party's secret-police expert, may be in as much trouble now as was his Soviet counterpart, Lavrenti Beria, in 1953, but Wang is more likely to be shuffled into a dead-end job than shot in the head as Beria was.

Chinese prefer to look at their history in long dynastic cycles, rather than adopt the European custom of new-regime-denouncing-old. By this measure, admirers of the post-Mao administration see it carrying out the tradition of the strong second ruler, expanding the economic strength and military power established by the dynastic founder.

That leaves the new Chinese government with some nagging modern problems, like the popular outcry for human rights. But it seems to be counting on the drag of authoritarian tradition. Talk in the official Chinese press of democratic reform, such as elections of some factory managers, fails to dispel the impression that these ballots contain only names approved by the local Communist Party committee. Letting factions contend vigorously for votes in the American style would come too close to challenging the roots of party rule, something Hua and Teng must maintain if their government is to be considered legitimate.

The protest has gone this far because the new government needs the skills and expertise of intellectuals who write wall posters. Peking can try to ride it out, pacifying protest with more foreign trade and access to foreign information. A few more of the unpopular holdovers from the anti-intellectual Mao era may be eased out, and people may be encouraged to put their grievances in letters to the People's Daily rather than on public wall posters.

But this Western trade and contact, and whatever limited forms of self-expression are allowed, must bring economic success and solve the problem of feeding more than 900 million people. If they don't, China's historic suspicions of the outside world, coupled with the Communist Party's tendency to launch a major purge every 10 years, could stop the reforms cold.