An American scholar who had enjoyed many long talks with Chinese friends here a year ago returned to Peking recently. When he called his friends to arrange a dinner date, he was told, with some embarrassment, "Maybe you'd better go through our office first."

He did as instructed, following the bureaucratic procedures which he had been told a year ago he could dispense with. Yet the dinner went fine. The talk was as lively and revealing as before, including frank complaints from his Chinese friends about official harassment and low standards of living.

What is going on here?

In the past three months, Chinese authorities have sharply restricted public wallposters and threatened to ban them altogether. They have made some contacts between Chinese and foreigners more difficult and discouraged a handful of underground editors from publishing unofficial magazines.

Yet those same authorities have made little effort to restrain Chinese from talking freely with the foreigners they do happen to see. The official press itself has become more open about China's problems, even admitting that many people are disillusioned with Marxism. Plays and comic dialogue that lampoon Communist Party excesses are seen and heard often.

Foreign analysts, who have strained to make sense of the last two decades of Chinese history, usually assume such contradictory events indicate disagreements at the top of the Chinese leadership and they are almost certainly right in this case. But conversations with both Chinese and foreigners here reveal great hopes -- and in some cases even predictions -- that this strange sweet-and-sour Chinese democracy, with some future lapses, is here to stay.

If so, it would be a radical departure from recent Chinese history. In the last 30 years periods of relatively free self-expression like this one have always given way very quickly to intense political campaigns designed to put all expression on a very narrow track. The current leadership seems to be trying to preserve some limits. They want to prohibit direct criticism of the top leadership and restrict dissent to private discussions rather than public wallposters, but let people speak as freely as possible within those rules.

This is a confusing and not terribly satisfying formula to many Chinese intellectuals. The favorite Communist Party slogan summing up the policy comes from that devotee of contradictions, the late Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung: "Both democracy and centralism, both discipline and freedom, both unified will and personal ease of mind."

Mao's words are no clearer to Chinese who care about free expression than they are to foreigners. "Which Mao are you quoting?" a Chinese university student asked when I referred recently to a remark by Mao, "the 1950s Mao, the 1960s Mao? He came out on every side of every question."

The current vague formula, however, appears to be the best the Chinese are going to get, and most have little choice but to try to get along with it. The government needs intellectual support to modernize the economy, rebuild the universities and reestablish contact with the outside world, so it moves carefully in limiting intellectual freedoms.

In December, China's most publicized wallposter wall along Peking's Avenue of Eternal Peace was closed. Posters can now be pasted on a wall inside a northwest Peking park. The place is rarely visited these days and most of the posters now appeal only for redress of personal grievances. One recent poster did criticize Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping for his January speech, as yet unpublished, in which he suggested all public wallposters be banned. The official press has exerpted much of that speech, but only referred obliquely to the part about wallposters, perhaps because not all the leadership is certain it wants to go that far.

As far as is known, only one of the approximately 20 unofficial magazines that were published here last year actually put out an issue in January. That limited run of 500 copies was sold only by subscription and in the magazine's tiny apartment-office. The journal, called the April 5th Forum, has asked Chinese authorities if it is under orders to close -- as other unofficial magazines have apparently been asked to do. The editors, a politically cautious group of young workers, seem willing to shut down, if only to encourage the police to be lenient toward one of their colleagues under detention for acquiring a secret unofficial transcript of a dissident trial.

The accused in that trial, 29-year-old Wei Jingsheng, was sentenced to 15 years in jail, for criticizing Deng and other government leaders and giving a foreigner grapevine information on casualties in China's war with Vietnam last year. Chinese still criticize that verdict, even in letters to official newspapers, a sign that it has had less than a completely chilling effect on dissent.

Most Chinese remember vividly the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, when free opinions eventually brought misery to many. Foreign students of Chinese affairs find it hard to believe that such relatively free speech, even in private, can go on much longer. Every chilling act, like the banning of the prominent wallposter wall or the Wei Jingsheng trial, seems to them the beginning of the end.

Yet events in China today simply are not proceeding the way they have in the past. Thus, most prefer to wait and hope for the best. One Third World diplomat, a longtime scholar of Chinese affairs with many Chinese friends said: "They have just gone too far this time to go back."