Joe Califano's traveling anti-smoking campaign today hit China, the world capital of demon nicotine. Lo and behold, there suddenly wasn't a cigarette in sight.

The U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare looked puzzled after three meetings had gone by this morning without a match being struck. Each year about 725 billion cigarettes, the world record , are produced here. Meeting halls ordinarily acquire a blue haze by 11 a.m.

Vice Premier Fand Yi, receiving Califano in the Great Hall of the People, seemed astonished at the absence and asked, "Nobody smokes here? We do have astrays."

Califano replied, "No one has smoked at any of the meetings I've been to this morning."

Some zealous Chinese protocol officer, apparently fearing Califano's wrath, had simply spirited away all the cigarettes. The diplomatic consequences are so far unknown, but, unlike other U.S. Cabinet officers who have visited China, Califano so far appears to have no prospects of meeting China's chain-smoking senior vice premier, Deng Xiaoping.

The Chinese press, however, seems entranced by this novelty of opposition to tobacco. The image of the late Chairman Mao with a cigarette propped between two fingers has seemed a bulwark against any anti-smoking campaign here. Still, China's news service and its two major dailies, People's Daily and Guangming Daily, questioned Califano enthusiastically and at length.

"Do the capitalist tobacco companies obstruct the campaign?" one of the Chinese reporters asked.

"They don't create any more of an obstruction than the state agency in China that sells tobacco," Califano replied. "The problem in the United States is the advertising making cigarettes attractive to young people."

Fang Yi, a recent visitor to Washington, said he was aware of Califano's part in the antismoking campaign. He implied that he thought that the Americans were perhaps carrying things a bit far.

"There were cigarettes on the table and they took them all away," Fang said of his staff. A Chinese love of hospitable gestures had overcome the state-dictated practice of putting cigarettes out everywhere for visitors.

"If I could get our State Department to do the same thing," said Califano, "it would be a great achievement." U.S. embassies tend to leave cigarettes out for visitors also.

Fang said: "I wanted to put cigarettes on the table, but I respect your view, so I didn't."

Califano said later: "I tell the Chinese what I tell the people back home, smoking is public health enemy number one. The danger in developing countries is they will pick up all the diseases of smoking - cancer, cardiovascular disease, emphysema and chronic bronchitis, without getting rid of the communicable diseases and thus widen the health gaps even more."

The Chinese have confirmed to Califano's party, including many U.S. experts in health and education, that car diovascualr diseases are increasing, particularly in Chinese cities.

"The reasons for that are usually smoking, and stress and hypertension," Califano said.

Last year a brief flurry of antismoking articles appeared in the Chinese press. The Guangming Daily complained that "the number of young smokers has been increasing . . . to counter this trend, we will mount an education program that will enlist the support of teachers and parents."

One former Chinese official said at the time, "They'll never get anybody to quit." There appears no noticeable dropoff in the habit here. The Chinese cigarette industry still turns out an embarassment of brands, Butterfly, Golden Deer, Panda, Peony, Golden Orchid and Sailing Boat among others. The nicotine frenzy displayed by the country's most influential leader, Vice Premier Deng, does wonder for sales.

Califano and Chinese Public Health Minister Qian Xinzhong signed a protocol today to pave the way for exchanges in medicine and public health technology, but Califano's remarks made only a passing reference to smoking. Qian said nothing about it.

The five-year agreement will allow scientists to compare data on heavy incidence of esophageal cancer in Linchien, China, with heavy incidence of general cancer in New Jersey. Doctors will study Chinese acupuncture while Chinese doctors study American work on a malaria vaccine.

Califano saw a woman being sterilized this afternoon with only acupuncture needles for anesthesia. No body smoked in the operating theater, and at this evening's banquet in the Great Hall of the People, some heavy drinking was undertaken, but no one at the table smoked.

"The Chinese care a lot about prevention, and our campaign is also an important part of preventive medicine," Califano had told Fang Yi.

Then diplomatically mentioning a Chinese success, he added: "We'll give you information about smoking if you tell us how you eliminated venereal disease."

"We'll try to use acupuncture," said Fang with a smile, "to help people stop smoking." CAPTION: Picture 1, A vendor displays her cigarettes for sale along a street in China. By Howard Simons - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Secretary Califano and China's health minister Qian X inzhong exchange documents after yesterday's signing.