The reports of recent civil war, murder, rape and pillage coming our of China these past few weeks raise again the issue that surfaces wherever Peking hits one of its periodic political snags: How much of it can really be believed?

Three decades ago, when Westerners first found themselves booted out of China and forced to observe from afar, that was a difficult question to answer. No one yet sorted out the new Communist code words, checked official bulletins and unofficial rumors against later refugee accounts or built up the essential log of Communist names and organizations.

But now, tested against an array of sources and analytical tools, including caution and common sense, the latest reports of recent violence seem to be bearing out despite distortions of time and distance, language and culture. The Chinese have been, and to some extend still are, in trouble, and in their own way they are saying so.

It is always necessary to listen to their messages with some care and skepticism. The stories appearing in the U.S. press about China these days are written by people who have never personally witnessed the acts of violence they are reporting. Some, like this writer, have never ever set foot in the People's Republic. Some wire-service reports from China have obscured the time element, making events that apparently happened some weeks ago appear to be happening now. But all the same, the incidents did happen, and their vibrations are still shaking the country.

There is one key lesson learned about the official Chinese medai over the last 30 years that gives the latest reports of violence great weight. The official press - the People's Daily, the New China News Agency, the various provincial radio stations - rarely exaggerate accounts of actual events, particularly those that show an embarrassing lack of public order. Their iron rule - confirmed by years of cross-checking with refugee and traveler accounts - is to soften or suppress altogether news of turmoil and conflict.

Thus this summer, when, even the most cutious observers now agree, China suffered widespread acts of violence, official radio broadcasts made only veiled references to "sabotage" by "class enemies" in some provinces. The People's Daily tersely warned against "organizing fighting groups" or "armed struggle," but said no more.

In the past, only extraordinary circumstances had forced the Chinese to use more specific or more sensational language, so when official broadcasts in the past few weeks began to speak of recent "chaos" in Wuhan, "serious inciddents" in Paoting and "all-round civil war" in Szechwan, it became clear how bad the situation had been, at least up to the October purge of the Peking "gang of four" blamed for the trouble. Most striking was the official admission that some people had been killed in factional strife, something the Chinese had rarely disclosed before.

The reports were obviously designed in part to help blacken the reputations and discourage the followers of the "gang" of Mao Tse-tung's disgraced widow, Chiang Ching. But it seems unlikely that they were exaggerated, for the broadcasts were aimed at local Chinese listeners who would know personally whether such violent acts had occured in their province. The Communists, with only a few lapses, have tried to preserve their credibility in such cases, for fear of touching off new unrest.

When such official casualty reports were made during the cultural Revolution 10 years ago, the broadcasts usually came after the height of the violence, but by no means after calm had been restored permanently.

The Communists used the broadcasts to reprimand or warn wrong-doers, to show that such acts were no longer condoned by official silence. It was a [WORD ILLEGIBLE] that trouble still threatened, and sometimes violence erupted again.

The bitterness left by those Cultural Revolution feuds, in which Chiang was deeply involved, makes it all the more unlikely that violence reports this year were faked or that the trouble ended immediately after her arrest.

The announcement of troops being called into Hangchow last year, and into Fukien this year, served as another way to chastise agitators.

Persistent radio warnings, even last month, against those who "smash, beat or loot" or against the "remnant poison" of Chiang repeated the time-worn signal that at least some places, as Peking officials have admitted, are still not under control.

Now, Western reporters in Peking say more candid Chinese officials seem puzzled that foreigners might doubt reports of violence in parts of China.

"You knew that Szechwan was closed off to practically all outside visitors the past two years," one official lectured a foreign diplomat. "What did you think was going on down there?"