Tension between a generation of state-imposed conformity and the new stirring toward personal freedom in China helps explain the response of a 17-year-old girl to controlled but significant changes here.

We were taken to visit the immaculate, cramped quarters of a six-member family living and working with a half-million other Chinese at the Taching oil fields. The head of the family was a smiling, archetypal "model worker," who as a driller helped open these fields in the late 1950s but now does the lighter work of watch repairing. After some perfunctory sloganeering from this worker, we asked his eldest child, 17, about her plans after finishing middle school.

"Whatever the state wants me to do," she replied automatically. We persisted: Surely, you must have some desire of your own. She giggled. Then after brief hesitation, she said: "My father repairs watches, and I would like to work making watches."

That may seem a modest statement of independence, but it could not have happened mere weeks ago. In the presence of important cadres from the oil fields, this simple girl was revealing something important: She has ambitions and desires of her own and is not simply a pawn of the state.

The brave Chinese who put up wall posters in Peking calling on Jimmy Carter to investigate human rights in China (and pasted them up again after they were torn down) are the tip of the iceberg. Beneath them are untold millions whose personal lives were disrupted more thatthe outer world imagines by China's last decade of political tumult and now are cautiously seeking a less fettered existence.

Apart from dramatic wall posters and the regime's headlong rush toward industrial modernazation, the human story of China is the quiet, gradual removal of the Maoist straitjacket. While Western diplomats fear this may be followed by iron repression, the nees of Teng Hsiao-ping's government are geared to liberatization. Teng is committed to ties with the West and a shake-up of the immense bureaucracy-goals that run counter to Red Guard dictatorship.

Nothing better illustrates this than the regime's decision, uprecedented for a communist country, to send thousands of young peopel to universities in the United States and Western Europe.

Simultaneously, Peking University and Other Chinese colleges are experiencing their own transformation. Closed down for five years by the Cultural Revolution and then constricted intellectually for five more years by Maoist radicals, the universities have been reborn.

Their students are now selected by nationwide competition, and the Cultural Revolution's requirement that middle-school graduates must work in the countryside before continuing their education has been quietly dropped. Peking University students are prominent among the young people who gained the world's attention with their demonstrations for free speech.

The university's English reading room offers uncensored U.S. newspapers and magazines. One foreignministry interpreter accompanying us was reading that old anti-communist periodial, the Reader's Digest. Another interpreter wad deep into the final (and overtly anti-communist) volume of Winston Churchill's memoirs. At the Hsi Tan wall of posters, young Chinese told us how much they enjoy the Voice of American in "special English" (limited vocabulary, slow delivery).

Western classical music and ancient Chinese opera, banned from China for over a decade, are back. When we attended the opera, the theater was packed with men and women in Communist China's "blue ants" costume, but there were exceptions-such as one woman with fur coat, brightly collored scarf and curly hairdo.

Dresses are to be seen in China, especially in Shanghai, and such non-conformity may spread to men."Our clothing is much too stereotype," one young party cadre told us, adding he thought traditional Chinese dress should be re-introduced for certain occasions.

Creeping individualism can spread from dress to political thought. Liu Shao-chi, the former chief of state purged by Mao Tse-tung (and now believed dead), is still excoriated as a "revisionist" in one briefing at Taching. But at the Hsi Tan wall in Peking, posters demand his rehabilitation.

What is a self-respecting cadre to do? He gets no guidance from Teng himself, who in his interview with us sidestepped a question about rehabilitating Liu. "So many things have been said about Liu that it's hard to know what to believe," a lower-level foreign-ministry official told us. After a pause, he added: "Things are complicated."

The idea that life is "complicated" without explication by official dogma is in itself new to Communist China. Although this country's tradition of centralized authoritarianism will certainly not give way to democracy, the rush toward modernization is changing the way Chinese think and live-and faster than anybody deemed possible.