Peking

People looking for a good time near the Peking Hotel only have to ask. Busy Wangfujing street, just around the corner, draws Peking's night people, youths with no jobs who spend their days sleeping. Here and there, with the sufferance of the local police, small coffee and beer joints stay open late and a Chinese-speaking foreigner with patience can hear the promise of an evening with a young woman in return for U.S. $3.25.

"Whom do you think is the prettiest woman in this room?" asked a young Chinese man of a Western visitor.

"Well, I don't really know, who would you say?"

"Just wait," the young man said, and returned with a sweet-faced woman in her late twenties dressed in tight-fitting slacks and blouse. Her name could be translated "Golden Thunder."

Golden Thunder was amiable. She wanted to talk about Western fashion. "The clothes in China are no good, too baggy," she said, fingering the olive drab trousers of a People's Liberation Army soldier sitting near her, apparently drunk.

When a shabbily dressed, burly young man suggested that he and I meet at 8 p.m. the next evening to arrange a special kind of appointment, another Chinese led me away and advised against it. He said, "That fellow has no job, he's in here drinking all the time. I know he arranges for young women like him to sell themselves. I've even heard him speak in favor of the Republic of China [Taiwan]. We have many good people in China; you should not waste your time on him."

Young men will suggest a price for the favors of a young woman, though sometimes it is a barter arrangement for goods like cigarettes. It is an amateurish, freelance operation. "They almost make it seem as if it's offered out of international friendship," said one Chinese-speaking Westerner. And there is an old-fashioned 1950s difficulty in finding a private place in this teeming city. "You have to get a car," one visitor was told.

The government is mindful of but not too bothered by the situation. The visitor had best watch his language. When a foreign diplomat asked his opposite number in the Chinese Foreign Ministry about prostitution, the Chinese official said, "There is no prostitution in China. However, we do have some women who make love for money."

WHAT MIGHT BE considered the tidiness or sterility of Chinese life, depending on your point of view, seems to be gradually disappearing in the more relaxed atmosphere of the post-Mao era. Antigovernment demonstrators and wallposters spread into one usually well-dusted corner, part-time prostitutes and black marketeers find comfortable spots in another. In some instances the things that surprised foreigners about Chinese life may always have existed but were more carefully hidden from foreign view or were less actively sought by the energetic and curious visitors who are now descending on China in great numbers.

In Lanzhou, capital of Gansu Province, a Western traveler who had been to China before was shocked to find beggars stopping him several times in the streets."People said they had come in from the countryside. Some had political trouble, I suppose. It wasn't made clear," he said.

At one point, several beggars, impressed by the comparatively infrequent sight of several foreigners dining in a local restaurant, boldly entered the establishment and put out their hands. "They seem to have a pecking order established," one tourist said. "The younger beggars would let the older beggars go first."

A few years ago, police would have forcibly removed such people from the streets with great haste. Now they do not bother. The newspapers in Shanghai, after all, have just completed a lengthy series of articles on one youth's encounter with a beggar, and the lessons to be learned from it. If China's richest city can take it, then so can Lanzhou.

THE CHINESE, bent on rapid modernization, no longer see the need to put on a big expensive show for visiting foreign dignitaries. State banquets used to be held frequently, with diplomats from all the resident embassies invited, but now usually only officials of China and the country from which the dignitary comes are invited.

The Communist Party and state council made a rare gesture of spending several thousand dollars for a huge diplomatic dinner reception for 4,000 people on Oct. 1, since it was the 30th anniversary of the People's Republic.

The foreign press, seated in the farthest rear corner of the hall toasted some of the most fondly remembered banquets from the era when China still practiced diplomacy in the grand old style. A favorite was the dinner given for Emperor Bokassa of the former Central African Empire, now recently removed in a coup. The self-styled emperor had several body-guards stand around him while he delivered his toast and watched with suspicion the bejeweled ladies and their balding husbands from the several Peking embassies.

One American guest at the Oct. 1 dinner, waiting for the next course to be served, learned to her shock that the cold cuts, rolls and melons spread on the table were all she would get. "I didn't get to eat anything," she said. A former sports-writer in the press corps clocked the banquet at only 1 hour and 6 minutes, a new record on the fast track of the new leadership's quest for modernization.