"Senior officials can buy commodities at cheap prices and can obtain commodities which are in short supply," according to a wall poster at Peking University.

Although most Chinese officials still lead simple lives by Western standards, a growing number enjoy a range of material benefits which are unobtainable luxuries in the eyes of most Chinese.

Apparently no foreigner has seen the shops in the Chungnanhai compound in Peking where China's top leaders live and work. Nor is any first-hand information available regarding the sort of food available in the countless canteens for the exclusive use of officials. And only a tiny number of the most trusted foreigners ever get invited to see how even middle-level Chinese officials live.

The mechanisms by which Chinese officials obtain everything from Kodachrome film to high quality suit fabric isn't known. Officials have their own brand of filter cigarettes, Panda, which isn't sold in regular stores. A foreign tobacco merchant said that China annually imports a small amount of high-quality tobacco for this brand.

In China's major cities, Friendshiop Stores exist for visiting and resident foreigners. The Peking store sells items from vegetables and household goods to clothing and antiques.

Two years ago, the only Chinese seen entering Friendship Stores were cooks and maids shopping for diplomats. Now it's common to see Chinese bureaucrats flashing identity cards at the entrance to do their own shopping.

Bicycles, which once were always available in the Friendship Stores, have seldom been in stock this autumn because the new Chinese customers snap them up so quickly. The same applies to sewing machines.

In at least one city, according to people living there, foreigners shopping in the Friendship Store are out-numbered by privileged Chinese officials.

The Friendship Store in Peking buys used Western consumber goods from foreign residents. Each month, the store circulates a list of the goods it has purchased to government ministries and agencies. According to a Chinese source, the first ministry which receives the list (on a rotating basis) almost invariably delcares that it will buy everything on the list.

No one seems quite certain what happens to those foreign cameras and stereo systems. Occasionally, however, one encounters a well-dressed Chinese putting Kodachrome film into his Canon camera.

ANOTHER SOURCE of Western goods for well-placed Chinese is the customs service in Canton. Overseas Chinese send hundreds of thousands of parcels each year to relatives, but frequently these are unclaimed, one possible reason being the high customs duty (frequently more than 100 per cent). Only insiders are informed, according to a visitor to Canton, when these unclaimed goods are put up for sale.

That poster at Peking University declared that official privileges are modest here in the capital compared with provincial cities.

"Some directors . . . at the bureau level in provinces and municipalities have their own large apartment and a set of superior furniture and the charge is very low. This is hardly conceivable in Peking."

Other officials, it said, build their own houses after obtaining the necessary construction materials in illegal and semi-legal ways.

"A certain director has built a 6 1/2-room house for the cost of a 1 1/2-room house.Where does the money for the extra rooms come from? Who pays? Nobody hands over any money. His friends or his subordinates get lumber, bricks, lime, glass and even nails from organizations, from state companies or from a production brigade. With an authorization note for just 10 cubic meters or bricks, he can arrange for a truck to take away 20 cubic meters."