Chinese headline writers might have named it "Timbergate." Greedy Communist officials in south China, taking everything from wristwatches to sexual favors, doled out tons of scarce lumber to wayward young women who then resold it on the black market for huge profits.

When the Communist Party considered itself inviolable a few years ago, the official line was that such wholesale graft as the timber scam--which is said to have netted $750,000 in illicit gain--could only have happened in the rotten, exploitative capitalist world.

Today the party is going through an unusual period of self-cleansing and has begun to acknowledge that official corruption has reached such epidemic proportions in China that it badly shakes public confidence and makes the bureaucracy look like a mob of chiselers.

Peking may be far from challenging Tammany Hall as a venue for venality, but official reports reveal a massive pattern of corruption, including tax evasion by state-run factories, official embezzlement and bribery, theft of public property, favoritism and nepotism.

Graft is so pervasive and costly--hundreds of millions of dollars are believed to wash up into illegal channels annually--that party chairman Hu Yaobang declared a year ago that restoring official integrity is "vital to the life or death, existence or extinction of the party."

Even the delicate Chinese language is spiced up with a patois for profiteers:

For the Chinese version of the shakedown, read, "plucking feathers from a wild goose."

For the payoff, read, "invite guests, send gifts."

For being well-placed to grease the wheels, read, "when you build your house near the water, you get a clear view of the moon."

Although corruption has bedeviled the world's oldest bureaucracy for centuries, it only recently became a subject for public debate when China's current leaders, intent on revitalizing the Communist Party, pledged to uproot and punish crooked officials.

The timber scandal in south China is just one of numerous corrupt schemes exposed by such an unlikely investigative vehicle as the party newspaper People's Daily, which occasionally sheds its role of party cheerleader and acts like the proverbial hatchet man.

Some recent examples in People's Daily and other official Chinese publications include disclosures that:

Officials operating a brewery in the northeastern city of Harbin evaded $300,000 in government taxes last year, parceling out the proceeds for lavish banquets and worker bonuses.

A commune leader in the coastal province of Jiangsu conspired with the captain of an oil tanker to steal 1,816 tons of crude oil from the vessel, sell it on the black market and then share the profits with the crew.

Communist officials in the southwestern province of Yunnan handed out 580,000 cartons of top-grade cigarettes to their relatives during a four-month period last year while the rest of the region was left with low-quality tobacco.

Chairman Hu and other top officials who are trying to put the party back together again after the anarchic Cultural Revolution believe one of the best ways to rebuild public faith in the party is to declare war on corruption and deal harshly with offenders.

The party's chief investigators, who work for a blue-ribbon panel known as the Discipline Inspection Commission, go about their work with the zeal of a young prosecutor out to make a name for himself. Working in factories, shops and government offices, they ferret out graft, leak it to the local press and begin the wheels of justice turning.

Penalties can be stiff for China's white-collar criminals. Embezzlers have received death sentences commuted to life imprisonment. Party cadres caught using public funds to build private residences have been sentenced to several years in prison.

Tough anticorruption laws have been enacted in recent months.

Despite the leadership's serious intent and the almost daily newspaper moralizing, many average Chinese believe the campaign against graft is doomed to failure.

In an economy of scarcity, official and unofficial Chinese use whatever leverage they have to increase their comforts. When people become friends they explore ways of enhancing "mutual advantage."

Mutual back-scratching has thus become the medium of exchange in China. It is said to be nearly impossible to get things done without what is universally known as "going through the back door," or soliciting the help of a friend in return for a favor.

This is true for the housing official who hopes to place his child in a college and can offer coveted living space in exchange. It also holds for the lowly vegetable vendor who can save his freshest produce as bartering chips.

The system reached its logical level of absurdity a few years ago when workers at a Peking crematorium refused to take away dead people unless they received favors in return.

Now one of the most popular sayings in China's capital is, "In Peking, you need a back door to get cremated."