By the look of China's guest list lately, you'd think Jimmy Carter was getting ready to call a reunion of his Cabinet at the Great Hall of the People.
No fewer than eight of Carter's high command, ranging from his national security adviser to his agriculture secretary, have descended on the Middle Kingdom since May or plan to do so within a few weeks, and the former president is scheduled to arrive here Aug. 24 for a 10-day visit.
Some of the once-mighty come as simple tourists, but they wind up getting the special treatment accorded visiting dignitaries, complete with lavish banquets, chauffeured Red Flag limousines, meetings -- amid popping flashbulbs -- with China's rulers, and expense-paid tours.
The Chinese are famous for remembering their friends, and today's leaders like to recall that it was the Carter folks who had the good sense to break the 30-year U.S. attachment to Taiwan and recognize Peking as the government of China in 1979.
For former national security adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski, who was treated last month to a tour of major points along the route of the historic Long March, the visit provided a chance to enjoy the memories of the 1979 breakthrough.
Former treasury secretary W. Michael Blumenthal, former energy secretary James Schlesinger and former assistant secretary of state Richard Holbrooke, all of whom represented the U.S. government in dealings with the Chinese, returned for commercial reasons.
"We came back because China was a tremendous success for the administration and with U.S.-China relations still a slight question mark, there is a sense that the Carter people represent continuity," explained Holbrooke, who was here with Schlesinger as a consultant for Lehman Brothers, the investment banking house.
Holbrooke, who left yesterday, also serves as an adviser to Nike, Inc., and Seagram Co. in China. He acknowledged in an interview that his former role enhances his current standing as a business consultant.
"The advantages are self-evident," Holbrooke said. "You know the Chinese officials, and they know what you stand for. There's a degree of trust based on mutual knowledge of each other."
The trust Holbrooke and Schlesinger cultivated as government officials paid off handsomely during their six days in China. They saw three vice premiers, and at the end of the trip, their company signed two consulting contracts with China.
Three months ago, Holbrooke returned to China for the first time as a private citizen. He was a guest of the Chinese government, however, and received the first-class treatment accorded visiting statesmen.
He met with China's foremost political leader, Communist Party Vice Chairman Deng Xiaoping, but afterward told reporters, "Frankly, gentlemen, we didn't discuss a hell of a lot that was newsworthy. Most of the time I talked about the problems of my business clients in China . . . . What people are trying to do is to increase American business interests overseas. That is in the American national interest."
Whether their purpose is to turn a buck, to enjoy once again the trappings of power or just to sight-see, enough of Carter's former lieutenants have returned to China to hold a reunion at the Temple of Heaven.
Blumenthal came in May as chairman of Burroughs Corp., and former agriculture secretary Bob Bergland stopped in Peking the same month as president of his food systems development company, Farmland-Eaton World Trade.
Mike Oksenberg, who served as Carter's China adviser on the National Security Council and has since returned to his teaching job at the University of Michigan, has been in Peking for several weeks gaining unusual access to officials for research for a book.
Former vice president Walter F. Mondale and former defense secretary Harold Brown -- both of whom came to China during the Carter years -- are said by friends to be planning return trips this fall.
"All the people who played a role in building the relationship were individually invited by the Chinese to come back to China someday," said an American official in Peking. "What's happening is that everyone is taking them up on it all at once."
Despite the Democratic cast to most of China's recent well-known American visitors, Peking normally shows a bipartisan friendliness to all U.S. officials, past or present, who take an interest in Sino-American relations.
By February, if current plans hold, the Chinese will have managed to land all three of America's living former presidents in less than a year. Richard Nixon has been invited here to celebrate the 10th anniversary of his historic trip to China, which began the normalization of relations. Gerald Ford was here in March, accompanied by Firestone Tire executives. He made the round of high-level meetings with Chinese officials, including Deng.
Brent Scowcroft, Ford's national security adviser, accompanied his old boss.
China lures not only the once-powerful, but also those currently in the limelight.
Secretary of State Alexander M. Haig Jr. was the first member of the Reagan administration to visit China when he came here in June. Many other administration officials are expected, including Treasury Secretary Donald T. Regan, Agriculture Secretary John R. Block and Defense Secretary Caspar Weinberger.
Among American officials coming this month are Chief Justice Warren Burger, who will meet with Chinese judicial experts, and Charles Z. Wick, director of the International Communication Agency.
In the 21/2 years since normalization of relations, Peking also has become one of the world's most frequented stops for congressional delegations.
Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska), chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on defense appropriations, was here in January for high-level talks.
This summer's crop of visitors will include Rep. Sam M. Gibbons (D-Fla.), chairman of the House Ways and Means subcommittee on trade, who will lead a 10-member congressional delegation in discussions of trade, economic planning and foreign investment in China.
Rep. Clarence D. Long (D-Md.), chairman of the foreign operations subcommittee of the House Appropriations Committee, will come here with three other congressmen to discuss a wide span of issues ranging from population to banking projects.
Sen. John Glenn (D-Ohio), ranking minority member of the Senate Foreign Relations subcommittee on East Asian and Pacific affairs, is expected to be here this month, as is Sen. Mark O. Hatfield (R-Ore.), chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"China has become as important to politicians as the three I's" -- Israel, Ireland and Italy -- Holbrooke said. "You generate news out of Peking that you couldn't generate from anywhere else. It's a terrific dateline. You can make news in Peking that you couldn't make standing naked in the middle of Pennsylvania Avenue."