''Intellectuals in China can roughly be divided into three generations,'' said a prominent critic. ''First, those over 60 years old. These are the survivors. They lived through the Chiang Kai-shek period, the war with Japan, the civil war. They welcomed the coming of the Communists, but then suffered during the anti-rightist campaign ( 1957) and the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). They can compare the China of today with the China of pre-liberation days (i.e., before the Communist takeover and the proclamation of the People's Republic in 1949).
''They like Deng Xiaoping's policies of modernization through economic incentives and the 'open door,' and they appreciate his efforts to bring intellectuals into the mainstream of Chinese politics, to upgrade their treatment, to stress the value of intellectual achievements,'' my friend said.
''But they have lived through so much, they have seen so many zigs and zags in China's foreign and domestic policies, and in their own lives, that nothing would surprise them any more. They will be happy if they can just live out the rest of their lives in a little peace and stability.
''Then come the people who are between 40 and 60. Some were in their 20s at the time of liberation. Some were still high-school students then. In any case, their adult life more or less corresponds with the life of the People's Republic of China. They, too, may have been badly damaged by the anti-rightist campaign and the Cultural Revolution - but much more than the older generation, they have the sense that the People's Republic is their own government, the Communist Party their own party.
''Some studied in the Soviet Union during the 1940s. Many are members of the Communist Party. This is the generation that will take over increasing responsibilities in party and government affairs as Deng Xiaoping and other older leaders die or retire. Nonparty intellectuals can talk to these people because they are of the same generation and shared the same experiences. This is not true of people of the older generation, in which there was a sharp division between intellectuals and party functionaries of guerrilla background who followed Mao Tse-tung unquestioningly, and who looked down on intellectuals as weak and indecisive.
''Mao Tse-tung, Chou En-lai, and Liu Shaoqi were all intellectuals. So is Deng. But most party leaders of their generation, the ones who joined the revolution in droves and who became senior officials in the central and provincial governments, in factories and research institutes, were peasants who only learned to read and write after joining the Army. These are the people who are being eased out now, because they lack the technical competence to run a modern industrialized society. Naturally there is bitterness and resentment among them, and because of this, Deng and his associates have had to proceed very cautiously.
''But it is now six years since the Cultural Revolution came to an end, and I think the process that Deng has started is irreversible.'' (This conversation took place in 1982.)
My critic friend himself belongs to the tail end of the over-60 generation, and acknowledges that for this reason he may be more optimistic than older intellectuals.
Finally, he said, there is the generation of those under 40. These are the people who grew up under Communist rule, who have no basis for comparing the government they have actually lived under with any other form of society. In their most impressionable years, their teens and their 20s, they went through the trauma of the Cultural Revolution.
''Don't forget,'' my friend said, ''that these young people were encouraged by Mao himself to rebel against the Communist Party and against the whole apparatus of government. They really thought they were the vanguard of the world revolution.
''By the time they were disillusioned, it was too late. They were off in some Godforsaken state farm or village in Inner Mongolia or Xinjiang, or perhaps teaching school in some remote county town, or on factory assembly lines, or aimlessly 'waiting for employment,' as the saying goes.
''Some have managed to claw their way into universities or colleges at home, or to get a precious scholarship for study abroad, by their own hard work, by a bit of luck, or by the backdoor influence of their parents.
''But many more remain without technical qualifications. They see themselves being elbowed out of the way by youngsters who are now beginning to graduate from universities and whose qualifications are obviously much better because their studies have not been interrupted by the Cultural Revolution.
''I look on this generation as the question mark in China's future. My children belong to this generation. So do those of some of our most prominent leaders, including Deng Xiaoping. They are a generation without illusions, and they take Deng's injunction to 'seek truth through facts' literally. They were fooled once, and they will not be fooled again. They are capable of doing great good for China, and also of doing the country much harm.''
During my 41/2-year stay in China, I have met intellectuals of all three of the generations my friend talked about. The conversation that lingers most in my mind was with a young woman I shall call Xiao Hua, a librarian in an institute at one of Shanghai's major universities. Xiao Hua has sparkling eyes and a great sense of fun. Through friends, I was introduced to her and spent an evening in her one-room flat with a group of her fellow workers, helping stuff jiaozi, Chinese dumplings, and of course eating them.
Her parents, both university professors, had been labeled rightists during the anti-rightist campaign of 1957, and had been nonpersons for over 20 years, until well after the fall of the ''gang of four'' in 1976. Raised by her grandmother, Xiao Hua plunged into the Cultural Revolution with gusto but was soon rejected because of her parents background and packed off to a farm in Inner Mongolia, where she spent eight long years, returning to Shanghai only in 1978.
''On the farm, I did just about every kind of work you can imagine,'' she said. ''Planting, weeding, harvesting, carrying manure. Some of the peasants I found were warmhearted. Others were mean. All were desperately poor. ''I don't say the experience was totally useless. It is a good thing for city people like me to see how four-fifths of our people live. But it was too long. A year or two would have been quite enough time for me to learn what I needed. Eight years was a dreadful waste of my best years, years which will never come back.
''Now I have a modest job in an institute. I am very docile at work, as are all my friends. We don't want to make waves. We don't want to offend our superiors. We don't want to do anything that will jeopardize our chances of getting a scholarship or a traineeship abroad.
''No, I have no desire to join the Communist Party, or any other party. Or, rather, let me put it this way: The only thing I and my friends know is how little we know, how much there is to know, about the world, about China, and above all, about ourselves. I want to go abroad, to be sure, but that is not in order to escape China. It is to find out about the world, and in that process to find out more about China and about myself.
''I am making no promises. Perhaps, in the end, I will decide that despite all the mistakes it has made, socialism is superior to capitalism. Perhaps I will end up being a Chinese patriot. Or perhaps not. Whatever I do, it will be the result of my own choice, not a choice forced on me by others.
''One thing I learned during the Cultural Revolution was to live inside myself. No one can touch me there. All I can tell you today is that I don't know enough about myself, or China, or the world, to make any kind of meaningful choice.''
Before leaving China, I drove down wide Changan Boulevard, past the vast square of Heavenly Peace and the gate from which Mao Tse-tung once reviewed hundreds of thousands of Red Guards wildly waving his little ''red book.''
The conversation with Xiao Hua was very much on my mind as I continued on past the stone lions and the five-starred red flag guarding the entrance to the Chinese Communist Party headquarters.
I had arrived in China in November 1979, too late to see the hordes of petitioners that had camped outside this ornate red gateway, demanding redress for wrongs they had suffered during the Cultural Revolution. But I had been present during the final weeks of Democracy Wall, a brick wall stretching from the telegraph office further down Changan Boulevard, to Xidan Crossing, one of Peking's busiest intersections.
Sheets of paper or cloth of varying size covered this entire stretch of wall, some giving in painful detail the sufferings the writers said they had undergone during the Cultural Revolution, some a more philosophical discourse on freedom or demanding more democracy. For several days long sheets of paper purporting to be a verbatim record of the trials of China's best-known young dissident, Wei Jingsheng, were pasted up on the wall and read avidly by passers-by.
Then, a month after my arrival, the authorities suddenly officialized the wall, transferred it to inconspicuous Juetan Park, and said only approved notices could be displayed there.
This killed the wall. What used to be Democracy Wall is today covered by large, neat, colorful advertising for Chinese and foreign products.
At Xidan Crossing, I had to wait for the light. Beside me, hordes of cyclists , mostly in blue but many in brighter colors encouraged by the new policies, waited impatiently, some of them darting forward like schools of minnows before the light had really turned. In front of me, pedestrians were scurrying across, almost in solid phalanxes, hurrying toward the department stores further down Xidan Street. An orange bus jammed with people somehow managed to turn from Changan Boulevard into Xidan Street, in the face of both pedestrians and cyclists, its female conductor shrilly warning passers-by that ''the bus is turning.''
I looked up across the street to a large red billboard. I had seen it many times before. Now, somehow, for the first time I registered what it was proclaiming, in bold white Chinese characters, to all the pedestrians and cyclists and car-borne people who went about their business seemingly oblivious to its message.
''Emancipate your thinking,'' the billboard exhorted. ''Start up your machine , seek truth from facts, unite and struggle to achieve the four modernizations'' - agriculture, industry, science and technology, and defense.
There it all was, I said to myself, as the light turned green and I inched my way forward, trying to avoid the pedestrians who still came across in clumps, utterly ignoring the change of lights.
That billboard encapsulated about as neatly as one could hope for the goals that Deng Xiaoping and his associates have set for China's billion people, and how they intend to achieve them.
But as I started across the intersection, my attention was also drawn to the companion billboard on the other side of the crossing. This billboard's wording was much more familiar.
''Resolutely uphold the socialist road,'' it said. ''Resolutely uphold the leadership of the Communist Party. Resolutely uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat. Resolutely uphold Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung thought.''
These are the four principles that the leadership asserts China must always uphold. Deng himself, who popularized seeking truth from facts, is also the leader who insists most strongly on upholding the four principles.
In all fairness to Deng and his associates, it is doubtful that they could get the vast, lumbering, cautious, conservative majority of China's party and government bureaucrats to go along with seeking truth from facts, if they did not at the same time give them the four principles as familiar guideposts to cling to.
But what will satisfy the party faithful no longer suffices for Xiao Hua and her friends. As this generation begins to acquire the knowledge, the understanding, and the self-confidence it seeks, will not the contradictions between the four principles and seeking truth from facts become so glaring that something will have to give? Can Deng and his associates, can their successors, manage the transition to modernization, industrial sophistication, and higher standards of living, while keeping the revolution of rising expectations under control - expectations rising increasingly in the mental field, as well as the material?
There are no facile, ready-made answers based on ''isms'' of any kind. As my critic friend said, the people of Xiao Hua's generation were fooled once; they will not be fooled again. This is what makes China such a terribly difficult country to manage during this prolonged period of uncharted transition.
To be without illusions does not mean to be without hope. One-fourth of mankind is engaged in a momentous experiment, from which there is no turning back.
China, fare thee well!
Previous articles appeared June 19, 20, and 21.