Police and FBI agents in northern California are investigating whether agents of the Taiwan government were responsible for the murder of a prominent Chinese-American journalist Monday.

The shooting death of Henry Liu, 52, in front of his home in Daly City south of San Francisco has raised the specter of undercover espionage by foreign agents in California's large Asian ethnic community.

Liu had written several articles critical of the Nationalist Party ruling Taiwan. Surveillance and harassment of such critics here has drawn the attention of the FBI and Congress for several years.

Daly City homocide detective Donald McCarthy said two men described as Asian in appearance, riding bicycles and wearing hooded sweatshirts, shot Liu twice in the chest and once in the face as he was loading his car at about 9:20 a.m.

He had recently published a biography of Taiwan President Chiang Ching-kuo, "which was very critical of the government over there," McCarthy said.

McCarthy said since the killers did not attempt to rob Liu, he is working on the theory that the shooting was politically inspired. An FBI spokesman in San Francisco said the bureau is assisting the Daly City investigation.

Liu's wife, Helen, said she had seen the two bicyclists in the neighborhood before the shooting. Although she and her husband own two gift shops in the San Francisco area, she said they had not been the target of an extortion attempt. She said she had concluded that Taiwan agents killed her husband.

Van S. Lung, owner of the Yenching Palace restaurant in Washington and a friend of the victim, said Liu told him recently that a representative of Taiwan had offered him $40,000 if he would cancel publication of his Chiang biography.

Louis Keng, a spokesman for the Coordination Council for North American Affairs, said he was not aware of the killing and could not comment. The council serves as the "unofficial" embassy of Taiwan under the agreement normalizing relations with the Chinese government in Peking.

A State Department official said assassinations by Taiwan agents are "certainly a possibility." He said two prominent Chinese with ties to Taiwan were killed in Brazil in the last year but in circumstances that suggest nonpolitical motives.

He said officials on Taiwan have cracked down recently on publications writing about Chiang's alleged illegitimate children, but Helen Liu said her husband deleted such material from his book.

A Senate staff report and several subsequent news accounts have reported an extensive Taiwan espionage system in this country, including a Senate estimate of 45 full-time agents in 1979. One FBI agent has reported an effort by Taiwan agents to use "criminal elements" in San Francisco's Chinatown to procure U.S. torpedoes for the Taiwan navy illegally.

Liu was born in mainland China and lived in Taiwan from 1948 until 1967, when he moved to Washington to work as a reporter for the Taiwan Daily News. He earned a master's degree at the American University and then moved to San Francisco in 1978.

His writing gradually became more critical of the Taiwan government he once supported. On Sept. 26 he returned from a visit to mainland China, where he worked on a biography of Lung's father, Lung Yun, the leader of Yunnan Province under the Nationalists.