An American businessman, who speaks fluent Chinese, visited the huge exhibition hall of the Canton Trade Fair. He stopped in front of a display set up by China's cereals, oils and foodstuffs corporation. "I don't want to take any of your time," he said to the Chinese officials there. "Could you please just give me one of your sales catalogs?"

The businessman later remarked: "At any other international trade fair, if you said that, it would be like pushing a button . . . You would be covered with catalogs."

But this is China, home of the world's oldest and perhaps most tenacious bureaucracy. To the Chinese, Washington's merry-go-round is strictly minor league -- their bureaucratic style has survived floods, fires, earthquakes, foreign invasions, famines, dynastic declines and revolutions.

It consists of few words spoken slowly and maddening caution even in the face of Marxist leaders who are now trying to modernize China. If the Communist Party is having trouble prodding the bureaucracy along, a Chinese officeholder is not going to be hurried by a capitalist upstart from a country only 204 years old.

Mr. Wang, the attendant at the cereals and oil exhibit, smiled and warmly welcomed his new American friend. He ignored the man's request.

"Please sit down and tell me how you learned Chinese," he said.

Bureaucracy is the issue of the 1980s in China. Ask any Chinese from Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping on down to a hotel room attendant: "Who are the real enemies of the people these days?" In one way or another, they will respond: "The bureaucrats."

Yet habits of caution, verbal obfuscation and fear of written instructions are imbedded in the lives of nearly all Chinese office dwellers, having little to do with whether an emperor or a commissar is in charge. So the confidence of China's new energetic leadership that they can solve the problem may be misplaced.

Asked what he did when a directive came to his desk, one Chinese official said: "First we look at it. Then we smell it. Then we taste it. Then we chew it a little bit."

"If the directive is written giving us this much latitude," he continued, spreading his hands wide, "then we interpret ti to give just this much latitude," bringing his hands together. "That way we won't be criticized in the next campaign!"

Foreigners have developed two very different approaches to bureaucratic impediments here.

Some do it the Chinese way. They engage the Chinese official concerned in long, polite chats.They take him to lunch. They ask if he'd like to try an American cigarette or come to see an American film. They sympathize with all his problems. This is the subtle art of establishing guanxi. The Chinese word means, among other things, "personal relationship." Guanxi has incalculable importance when dealing with the bureaucracy in a country where people are still uncomfortable in insisting on black-and-white rules.

Some foreigners, during their frustration attacks which come often here, throw guanxi to the winds.They shout, they scream, they wish the Chinese had suits with lapels by which they could be shaken. Sometimes -- if some viable threat is involved and the dispute is not at too high a level -- this even works.

"Generally the soft approach is better," said a Western diplomat who has lived here nearly three years. "But you have to be persistent in your softness and you have to have good intelligence. You have to make sure you are dealing with the right person."

Patience has its rewards, at least in small matters. One American resident of the Peking Hotel each morning brought his personal jar of instant coffee to breakfast and ordered only a cup of hot water. One day, a waitress charged him 20 cents for the water and he protested.

"It took me three days to get an appointment with the manager, but she was nice," the man explained as he recounted the episode. "She said, 'Ah, you are right. That is not reasonable.' And the bills stopped."

A diplomat had shipped his automobile to Peking and took it to the government office for an inspection.

"They said the brakes did not work right," the diplomat recalled. He had worked as a mechanic in college, and did not see what the problem was, but put in new brakes anyway.

No good, the inspectors said. The car had to stop cleanly without swerving at 50 miles an hour. He tried the test and the car worked fine, but again it flunked inspection. Desperate, he asked the inspector, "What should I do?"

"Perhaps you should take it to a Chinese garage," they said.

"I did what they said," the diplomat said. "The Chinese mechanics fiddled around for awhile, then told me it was fixed. I took it out on the road again, hit the brakes, and the car swerved about 45 degrees.

"Then I took it back to the inspectors, who knew I had taken it to a Chinese garage this time. It passed."

The Chinese, who generally are resigned to the system, are quicker at discovering loopholes and less apt to lose their tempers. But there are limits. I saw one Chinese explode at a customs official in the Peking railway station when, after waiting in line for an hour, he was told he was at the wrong window. After listening to a half-minute of shouting, the clerk shut the window.

Peking bureaucrats have a reputation for being the worst of their breed, in the eyes of Chinese from the southern part of the country. China's Mason-Dixon Line is the Yangtze River. For centuries, Chinese have stereotyped, relaxed people as even-tempered, relaxed and passive. The Chinese blame this on long periods of idleness during the cold winters. Southerners, particularly people from Shanghai, are portrayed as emotional, vigorous, aggressive and contentious. Foreigners here have learned to enjoy watching southerners as they wrestle with the northern bureaucracy.

"Peking people like things steady and slow. They say wait, wait," said a man from Shanghai now working here. "Shanghai people like efficiency. They do things quickly, both good and bad. The Gang of Four [the Maoist Politburo clique purged in 1976] was from Shanghai, of course. Once the papers here in Peking complained that there was only one private inn for transients to stay in. People in Shanghai saw that item and within a month, there were a thousand private inns operating in Shanghai; so many the government had to order several of them closed down."

Chinese find they can get their way with stubborn office holders by presenting small gifts, cigarettes, theater tickets, or -- even better -- finding friends who know someone in the office concerned. Without such connections, one Chinese veteran of the bureaucratic struggle says, "The only thing to do is go back again until they consider you a nuisance and will help you just to get rid of you."

"We have a bad habit in this country of receiving people who have problems with smiles and promises, and then not doing anything," one official said.