A Shanghai college student recently asked an American she knew casually to take a walk, and when they were out of earshot began to describe a long string of personal frustrations.

Somewhat taken aback, the American asked the Chinese why she didn't talk this over with her close friends. "That would not be wise," she said.

In the relatively relaxed atmosphere of China's post-Mao era, free markets and pleated skirts are making a comeback, but trusting friendshps -- traditionally taken very seriously in China -- still seem missing to many Chinese. In an atmosphere of lingering distrust that Chinese youths say contributes to their widespread low morale, some people are confessing personal secrets only to foreign acquaintances because they know the authorities cannot force foreigners to repeat them.

"It is hard to say who my best friends are now," said an office worker in Nanjing. "Before the Cultural Revolution, many people had friends who were as close to them as brother and sister, but after the Cultural Revolution, many of us found that our friendships were not as valuable as we thought, so people are less willing to confide in other people now."

An Anhui journalist said, "A close friend now, who has passed the test and not betrayed you during the campaigns, that is someone who will be close to you always. You can talk to him without fear of what is in your heart. But such people are very rare."

It is 30 years since the word "comrade" became the proper term of address for all Chinese. It symbolized not only new speech patterns, but a planned revolution in personal relationships in which Chinese would share innermost feelings with everyone, not just friends. The damage that resulted to ordinary, day-to-day discourse is difficult to measure, but the Chinese say they feel it.

Routine meetings for people to make confessions and criticize school or work-mates are less common now. But many Chinese say it is still difficult to be aboslutely frank with more than one or two persons in their lives, and even then they have qualms. The novelist Ding Ling said that in China, "When there are only two persons, they talk frankly. When there are three, they tell jokes, and when there are four, they speak falsehood."

The friendships that do occur here arrear to be so close that the risks of betrayal are that much greater. Traditionally, friendship was one of the five relationships sanctified by Confucius, and the only one that offered a refuge from the severe obligations to higher authority involved in most of the Chinese moral code. Friendship to the Chinese minds grew to mean a deeply satisfying and serious commitment, a feeling which seems to have carried over into the modern era.

A long-time foreign resident of Peking, comparing habits in China and the West, said, "The Chinese place intolerable demands on a friend, such as taking care of their kids for long periods, and they best be prepared to reciprocate." An American diplomat said: "Chinese friendships are much deeper than ours."

The obsession with friendship is so strong that some obersvers believe it spills into China's official dealings with foreigners and foreign governments. s

"You can see it," said one senior American diplomat who has dealt with the Chinese for more than a decade. "The second [Ricahrd] Nixon trip in 1976 was a case in point. The Chinese had little to gain and risked some embarrassment from inviting back a recently disgraced president, but he was an old friend who had helped them, and so they did it anyway.

"When Deng Xiaoping went to Tokyo in 1978, he paid a visit to Tanaka [the similarly scandal-tainted former Japanese prime minister], the diplomat said. "It made the Japanese very uptight, but Deng went ahead anyway. You become a friend of China, and they make not only gestures, but back it up with money, lay out a welcome at no small expense. So you can see how much they yearn for this in their personal lives."

As much as it encourages an end to the political paranoia of the Maoist days, the Communist Party cannot bring itself to endorse friendship even now. The People's Daily said recently: "Some people do not distinguish between right and wrong and cast aside principles in dealing with their relatives, fellow townsmen or with persons having an old relationship with them or regarded as their friends. When this type of person has shortcomings, makes mistakes or does evil things, they do not criticize and struggle against him but treat him leninetly and even try to condone and protect him."

Friendship took a terrible beating in the Cultural Revolution of the late 1960s, when friends turned on each other to try to save their jobs during the mass purges.

A Peking office worker spoke once, hesitantly, about the aches and annoyance of working side-by-side now with the man whose demunications sent him to a lonely and difficult farm assignment for several years. "I can forgive," the man said, "but I cannot forget."

B. Michael Frolic, a Canadian scholar and diplomat, interviewed a Hong Kong emigrant who took the story of the decline of friendship back to 1957. At that time, Mao encouraged intellectuals to criticize the Communist Party, then thought better of it when the criticism became too severe.

The emigrant was then a bright young economist in northeast China, and he wisely held his tongue when others jumped to criticize bureaucrats meddling in the technical work of his office. But he thought the criticisms were apt, and he told his girlfriend this. Not long after "I had to stand at attention and hear my girlfriend in a clear, confident voice tell the whole school how I had secretly opposed the party and tried to enlist her cooperation in this effort," he said. He was sent off to five years to farm labor. His former girlfriend married "a cadre with a safe class background," he said.

"I hope for his sake he keeps his mouth shut when she's around," he said.

Harvard sociologist Ezra Vogel, in an analysis of the decline of friendship in China through the 1950s and early 1960s, said even the earliest campaigns of the 1950s took a terrible emotional toll because "most people were apparently completely unprepared psychologically for being denounced by their friends."

People compared some of the earliest campaigns against officials and businessmen in Shanghai "to the 1929 Wall Street crash, and the feeling at the time was that one must be careful in walking along the street to watch for the bodies falling from tall business buildings."

Based on talks with Hong Kong refugees recounting their high school days in the pre-Cultural Revolution period, California sociologist Susan Shirk suggests that China after Mao might return to the system of regular political confession meetings. But many Chinese youths here say they wonder if anyone is risking close friendships anymore, or in any case testing them with conversations about their innermost political feelings. "It is important to have friends, but we try not to discuss political things," said a student in Hefei. "Most Chinese do not care about politics anyway. They just care about themselves."

A nanjing teacher said, "It is just too much of a risk, and people feel so uncomfortable with people who in some way betrayed them." The Chinese have a favorite saying to describe the sitaution: "Once a snake bites you, you are even frightened by a rope."