The Albanians are not advertising it, but the Chinese seem to be putting out feelers in an effort to make amends for their cutoff of economic assistance five years ago.
Rumors that Peking was interested in some resumption of links with Tirana, the Albanian capital, began circulating several weeks ago. As a first step, a delegation was said to be on its way to Albania to talk about trade.
Albanian diplomats in Western capitals stayed mum when the question was put to them. But East European sources and the Chinese themselves confirm that a team of economic specialists and trade officials was in Tirana for the first time since China's 1978 pullout. Albania's silence is in line with the strict policy of ''reliance on our own forces'' that has prevailed since 1978. That policy began in 1971 when a visit by American table tennis players to China signaled a Nixon initiative to find an opening to resuming relations with Peking.
''We don't play Ping-Pong in Albania,'' an official replied icily to this reporter, who was in Tirana at the time. Within a year, the tie with China had cooled. Chinese economic credits ended, but technicians stayed on for some time.
When they withdrew on two weeks' notice in July 1978, they left a score of development projects unfinished. It was a grave blow to a small, impoverished country whose earlier economic prop - provided by the Soviet Union in the days of Joseph Stalin - was removed by Nikita Khrushchev early in the 1960s. (Albania is still ''Stalinist'' and proud of it.)
Albanians are proud that they completed the unfinished Chinese construction work by themselves. A recent national conference on the country's development into the 1990s played up the fact that the current five-year plan - now in its third year - was undertaken with no foreign help.
Since breaking with China, Albania has formed trade ties and entered into cultural and sporting exchanges with most of the Western nations. But it always maintains strict reservations of ''equality and mutual advantage'' and refuses to seek or accept credit.
Three times since the early 1970s Albania has rebuffed hints of US readiness to discuss opening relations. Officials in Tirana brushed off similar moves by Moscow in the same way. Recently they have ignored calculatedly friendly words from the Andropov leadership.
For Tirana, the United States and Soviet Union are equally ''imperialist and reactionary.'' Despite their polemics, Albanian officials have not seemed to view China in quite the same sinister light. Despite what Albania perceives as Peking's ideological defection to ''capitalism'' and Yugoslav-style ''revisionist'' communism, Albania is probably not averse to some limited return to normal relations, especially now that China's American connection is under strain.
(Reuters reports that while Chinese party leader Hu Yaobang was visiting Yugoslavia last week, Mr. Hoxha condemned China's policy toward Vietnam, accusing China of hostility toward Vietnam and of blocking its development.)
Albania is likely to question China's motives in any moves toward restoring more normal relations but is sure to insist on compensation for its unfinished projects before it enters any new trade arrangement.
In private conversation, Albanian officials insist China is ''capitalist'' and Albania the one and only truly ''socialist'' state in the communist world. But such a difference has not prevented agreements with a score and more of the Western ''capitalist'' states over recent years.
''Political differences are no barrier to normal commercial business with any country which respects our independence,'' officials say. That now includes Balkan neighbors (of whom two are in NATO), the West Europeans (also members of NATO), and the Scandinavians (NATO and neutral), to say nothing of Warsaw Pact East Europeans, notably industrially advanced East Germany.
Britain and West Germany remain exceptions: Britain because it still holds gold the Germans filched from Albania in World War II, and Bonn because it refuses to make reparations for casualties and damage inflicted by German occupation.
A recent conference of Albania's party and state leaders and its economic thinkers was notable on two points:
* The prominence of Ramiz Alia, who recently became president of parliament and is a secretary of the Communist Party Central Committee. Mr. Alia seems to be the successor-designate to Enver Hoxha, Albania's leader since World War II.
* Mr. Alia's concluding speech, in which he detailed the prerequisites for further development under the 1986-90 plan. Predictably, he contrasted Albania's steady growth and stability with the crisis conditions and inflation of the capitalist world and of communist states like Yugoslavia that have adopted economic ''reforms.''
Albania, he said, was building ''a real socialist economy.'' It had a strong material base, but much remained to be done. He referred with unusual candor to ''innovative thinking'' and to inescapable ''qualitative and quantitative'' changes in economic structure within the next plan.
There had to be ''more effective use'' of resources, especially of energy and minerals, already big exports for Albania - and readiness for ''radical changes'' in agriculture as well as industry to use the new technologies.
Mr. Alia said nothing to support either speculation of leadership splits at the time of the violent demise 18 months ago of longtime Premier Mehmet Shehu or that some such split might follow Mr. Hoxha's departure. Supposedly some officials were urging broader and swifter openings to the capitalist world. A dozen times Alia lauded Hoxha's leadership.
But the conference seemed to signal a younger, more contemporary touch - Mr. Alia is 59 - and awareness of the need to prepare for change in a not-too-distant future.