BEIJING -- An interview with Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev published last month in an official Chinese magazine caused confusion at high levels of the Chinese government and set off a major argument in Beijing, well-placed Chinese press sources said.

The decision to seek an interview with the Soviet leader had not been cleared at the highest levels in the Chinese capital, the sources said.

To most China watchers, accustomed to dealing with a highly centralized bureaucracy in Beijing, such an oversight and lack of coordination would seem inconceivable. But the sources said the incident reflects the loosening in the once rigidly controlled Chinese press.

In the interview published Jan. 11 by the official magazine Outlook, Gorbachev called for a Sino-Soviet summit meeting. Outlook has a reported circulation of 500,000.

The Chinese publicized only part of the interview in other official newspapers and news agencies. After a delay of two days, Beijing rejected the summit offer, repeating that China's condition for a summit was movement toward the withdrawal of Soviet-backed Vietnamese troops from Cambodia.

The slow and seemingly uncertain Chinese response to an interview that China appeared to have sought left foreign diplomats here wondering what had happened.

Diplomats also wondered why the interview was sought with Gorbachev when Beijing seems to be in no hurry to improve relations with Moscow.

The answer, Chinese sources say, is that the Chinese government, at least at high levels, did not seek the interview, and was embarrassed by it. "When the results of the Gorbachev interview were sent back to Beijing, the leadership of the Foreign Ministry was surprised and very unhappy," said one well-placed Chinese journalist.

Chinese press sources said the magazine submits questions every year to foreign leaders around the world, expecting short answers. The questions sent to Gorbachev were submitted last November on behalf of the magazine by the New China News Agency correspondent in Moscow, and the Chinese ambassador to Moscow was aware of the questions. The questions contained no mention of a possible summit.

But Gorbachev, replying with written answers, decided to turn his response into a general message to the Chinese people, according to a western diplomat who has looked into the controversy. Making the most of the interview, he renewed the Soviet offer of a summit.

The subsequent publication of the interview in Outlook convinced some foreign observers here that the interview must have been authorized by high-level Chinese officials.

China's senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, has made clear to his subordinates that he thinks Sino-Soviet relations should move at a measured pace and that it is much too early to be considering a summit.