Peking — Corruption has become China's No. 1 political issue. Communist Party rhetoric condemning corruption has been heating up lately. Comments by senior party leaders and in the official press point to abuses in the top echelons of power. They suggest that the extent of the corruption is endangering their reform program and undermining the economy.
Leaders have even hinted that some high-level offenders could be executed for economic crimes.
Hu Qili, head of the powerful Communist Party Secretariat, said in a speech last weekend that the party must begin its anticorruption work with the important cases, especially those involving high-ranking officials and their offspring. Mr. Hu announced earlier this month that he had set up a committee to root out corrupt elements from agencies in the central government.
``In dealing with these cases, we must kill one to teach 100 and to save others,'' Hu told graduates of a central party school.
Hu's chilling words are taken from a familiar Chinese proverb, and they recall another well-known national proverb: ``Kill a chicken to scare a monkey.'' The idea is that dispatching the chicken will impress the monkey and cause him to behave properly.
Teaching by negative example is a common Chinese practice, and observers speculate that the authorities could be about to publicize one or more major cases of corruption to show they are serious about enforcing party strictures.
In the past year, China's official press has announced several executions for what it called ``serious'' economic crimes -- those involving large amounts of money or extensive fraud. Press commentaries also have recalled how the party handled its first prominent cases of corruption in the early 1950s, when two top party officials in the northern port city of Tianjin were executed for misusing public funds.
The two young men were publicly denounced by Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Mao had ordered that corrupt party members should be dealt with according to the seriousness of their offenses and that ``the worst among them should be shot.''
Although party leaders have said that the anticorruption drive is not a political movement, it has political overtones, since it is directly linked with the reforms of senior leader Deng Xiaoping.
The leadership may be drawing a lesson from last summer's massive economic scandal on Hainan Island, which involved foreign-exchange dealings and imports of consumer goods worth some $1.5 billion.
The economic opportunism by top officials on Hainan gave Mr. Deng's critics powerful ammunition against him just before an important party conference in September.
Another major national meeting is scheduled for late March, and the reformers almost certainly want to crack down on economic crime in a way that will steal their critics' thunder before the delegates arrive in Peking. The National People's Congress, a kind of national assembly, will be meeting in March to endorse the crucial 1986-1990 five-year plan and other reformist measures, such as a new civil code and rules governing wholly-foreign-owned enterprises.
The official press has been featuring unusually blunt commentaries on corruption. One article last week by the official New China News Agency said that many officials were ``doing their work with a seriously irresponsible bureaucratic attitude,'' had blind faith in the ``god of wealth,'' and were ``corrupted by capitalist ideas and struck by the `sugarcoated bullet.' '' The ``sugarcoated bullet'' is an old communist metaphor for that money which corrupts the conduct of party members.
But the corruption problem is more than just a matter of politics and party image. The amount of funds involved in some cases indicates that corruption is having a measurable impact on the economy.
Last month, China's auditing administration announced that it had uncovered waste, fraud, and tax evasion valued at $2.9 billion. This was more than double the amount uncovered in 1984. Recent cases of fraud in the southern provinces of Fujian and Guangdong have run into tens of millions of dollars, implicating dozens of people and seriously affecting operations of some state enterprises and government offices.