''Are they just going to swat flies or are they going to kill the tigers?''
That was the expression used by one Chinese citizen when asked his opinion about the government's current anticorruption campaign. In other words: Is the government going to catch just the little fellows or will it take strong action against even high officials found guilty of economic crimes?
A revision of the penal code that took effect April 1 raises the punishment for serious economic crimes from 10 years' imprisonment to life imprisonment or even capital punishment.
Offenders are being urged to confess their crimes voluntarily before May 1. Those who give themselves up before the deadline are promised leniency. Those who refuse to do so ''will certainly be dealt with seriously,'' a recent government statement announces.
Among the crimes newly subject to the death penalty are: embezzlement, smuggling, illegal purchase of foreign exchange, speculating for huge profits, selling narcotics, and stealing cultural relics for export.
The drive against corruption ranks with streamlining the government as the leadership's two most important domestic tasks this year. Party Chairman Hu Yaobang, Premier Zhao Ziyang, and other leaders have stressed that unless the Communist Party purges itself of corrupt elements, its very survival may be at stake.
Rumors link various high officials, including ministers, vice-premiers, and Army leaders, to abuses of privilege and outright crime. The crimes range from smuggling television sets and videorecorders into China to exporting rare paintings and antiques.
There are persistent reports that prosecutors will bring public charges against at least one fairly high official or a relative of a high official. Citizens are waiting to see whether this will happen and who the accused will be.
Meanwhile, at middle and lower levels, the government campaign seems to be having the intended effect. The son-in-law of a bureau chief in an important ministry was accused some time ago of helping to smuggle paintings to Hong Kong. He was arrested, and his father-in-law reportedly paid an acquaintance in the Public Security Bureau 1,500 yuan (about $833) to get him released.
Then the current anticorruption drive began. The young man was arrested again , and this time his father-in-law was too terrified to think of offering a bribe for his release.
Several children of high cadres are reported to have been arrested and those who have not, are said to be leading exemplary lives out of fear.
Peking television April 20 showed the trial of three young men involved in a gang rape. One of them is the son of a high-ranking Army officer. The officer, He Huiyan, deputy commander of the Army Engineering Corps, wrote a letter to the party Central Committee deeply regretting how inadequately he had brought up his children. He promised that whatever punishment his son received, he would never ask for special consideration. It is a prevalent practice to ask old comrades-in-arms and acquaintances for special consideration on one thing or another.
Meanwhile, according to the People's Daily April 20, more than 2,900 persons have come forward to confess serious economic crimes, aid in the capture of accomplices, and make restitution for their gains.
The Canton paper Yangcheng Evening News on the same date publicized the case of a commune foundry director who had received 12,100 yuan ($6,722) as commission for illegally selling 10 imported Toyota sedans. The director spent 1 ,100 yuan and hid the rest in a plastic bag in a gap between ceilingboards. But becoming fearful of being discovered, and encouraged by his family and friends, he made a full confession and returned all the money. He was allowed to keep his job and is engaged in a process of ''self-reform through work,'' the paper reported.