For centuries the Chinese have executed people because they opposed the accepted political thinking of their day. This year the Communist Party has held to the old tradition by frequently using firing squads, even though that device caused trouble for party chairman Hua Kuo-feng as a young man.

In 1951, when Hua was 31 and a party official in a country of Hunan Province, he came under criticism for arranging the execution of a local peasant. A later investigation proved that the man had been framed by corrupt land reform agents.

The little-known incident, uncovered by University of Michigan researchers during an exhausive study of the Hunan press, reveals how political executions in China have created the same popular indignation, political turmoil and adminstrative abuse they were meant to eliminate.

Foreign travelers have recently reported wall poster announcement of a few more such executions, probably running the total for a long-term effort to eliminate Hua's political apponents into the thousands.

China's veteran party adminstrators, appear to have learned little from the bitterness and family vendettas caused by the political killings of the chaotic early 1950s and the late 1960s.

Even Chairman Hua, now a long way from his days as party secretary for Hsiang-Yin County, seems to have remembered little of the case of one Yang Te-lun, a poor peasant from Yu-Chieh township.

The story of Hua and Yang is told in a recent edition of the British publication China Quarterly in a long article on Hua's early career written by Sai - heung Yeung and Michel Oksenberg. who has since left Michigan to become the White House's principal China specialist.

The incident occurred just a year after the Communist Party had pushed the Nationalist Chinese government off the mainland. The Communists were executing suspected Nationalist sympathizers and landlords who had oppressed the pleasants. It was a time. the article says of "chaos and not infrequent corruption of the lowest level cadres charged with carrying out land reform."

One such group of officials arrived at Yu - Chieh township in December 1950 and "instead of firmly establishing contact with the poorer peasants in the region. it found housing among the wealthier peasants. In rapid time. according to the later revelations. the team engaged in all sorts of nefarious behaviour. including sexual misconduct, protection of landlords, misclassifying rich peasants as poor peasants in order to protect them and so on." Yeung and Oksenberg said.

Yang had considered the Communists and their land reform as the savior of poor peasants like himself. He was shocked. and loudly criticized the officials for their behavior. In return for his trouble, the local judge, who also worked with the corrupt officials in his capacity as chairman of the district land reform committee. endorsed an indictment charging Yang with siander and disrupting land reform and recommended the death sentence.

n the complex series of bureaucratic checkoffs for approval of executions that were going on at that time. Hua appeared to serve as a key coordinator. He was telephoned by the county party land reform official who had to approve the execution. and in turn informed the local police within a matter of hours when higher authorits approved the sentence.

Yang was shot Feb. 27. 1951. apparently only two days after Hua had been officially informed of the case for the first time.

It happened so fast that the official documents authorizing the execution did not arrive in time for Yang to enter his last words, as was his legal right.

"The whole affair left a number of peasants in the township very discontented." Yeung and Oksenberg said.

In the next two years, as the party canvassed peasant reactions to land reform, the better feelings of Yang's friends in Yu - chieh came out and subsequent investigations proved them right.

The land reform officials immediately responsible were severely disciplined. By 1953 when the incident was revealed in the official Hunan press. Hua had left the country for other duties, "but a close reading of the press suggests he may have had to confess a minor error of "bureaucratism" for the excessive dispatch with which he handled the case and for totally accepting without independent verification the report from below." said Yeung and Oksenberg.

The incident seems to have left no lasting mark on Hua's career. The two authors suggest his mistake was common enough in that day. and thus excusable. The reports of political executions that have continued in spurts to this day indicate that the Chinese have not altered their somewhat casual attitude toward due process in cases of capital punishment.

Criminals who cannot be rehabilitated - like the mental patient who stabbed an American tourist in Peking this September - and political dissidents who won't change their minds are not differentiated in China. Both threaten public order and both have to go.

A German visitor to China. Christian Broda. reported earlier this year that the Chinese legal officials he spoke to referred "unhesitatingly and unemotionally" to capital punishment "as one sanction. relatively seldom applied. (that) obviously belongs to the sphere of socieity's reactions against deviant behavior. what we would call "carrying out preventive measures."

Hua trying to rebuild his country in the wake of the tumultuous last years of Mao Tse - tung. is, if anything a traditionalist. He adheres to the tried and true methods of the productive 1950s to create a better society, and that apparently includes the political executions that to back the the beginnings of China's golden age long before Christ.Amnesty International the Nobel Prize - winning organization that represents expressions of Western morality in these matter. cabled Hua in August expressing concern about the executions. As far as is known, there has been no reply.

Chang Hsiang - shan. director of the Central Broadcasting Administration of China, said Friday at a reception in Tokyo that press reports of political prisoners being executed were "groundless." the Associated Press reported.He acknowledged that there house been some executions of "anti - revolutionary" criminals charged with murder. rape and black market profiteering .