Three years into its flirtation with the West, China is worrying about going too far.
The Communist Party newspaper People's Daily said today that smuggling, currency speculation and bribery have run rampant since China flung open its doors to foreign trade and culture. A front-page commentary complained that even high party officials have been bitten by the bourgeois bug.
"The influence of decadent capitalist ideology, remnant feudal ideology and fawning mentality of seeking a foreign way of life is more serious than it has been at most times since the establishment of new China (when the Communists took power in 1949)," the newspaper said.
While soliciting foreign trade and technology as tonic for its stunted economy, Peking has remained critical of Western liberties and lifestyles, which already have proved contagious in this traditionally closed society.
Before today, however, the party had not so openly linked its own problem of internal corruption with foreign influences.
"This is the strongest formulation (yet) of an age-old Chinese dilemma," a Western diplomat said. "How do you absorb what the barbarians have without living and acting like them?"
The dilemma deepens almost daily as China grows more reliant on foreign commercial ties to supply grain to its cities and advanced equipment to its offshore oil exploration rigs. Despite their grumbling, national leaders continue to welcome outside investors and visitors from abroad, and even People's Daily reiterated that China encourages economic relations with foreign countries.
But the commentary stressed that the open door policy makes it all the more important for party officials to be "sober-minded Marxists" to keep "germs" from spreading. It shifted the onus from tempter abroad to tempted at home by concluding that "the main danger comes from none other than the degenerates within the party."
"If these (corrupt) activities remain unchecked," the commentator warned, "China's socialist cause will be irreparably damaged and the fruits of revolution won through decades of hard struggle will be lost."
Coming amid an intense nationwide campaign to rid the party and state bureaucracies of aged and insubordinate officials, the commentary is believed aimed at least partly at Guangdong Province, which abuts Hong Kong and is the Chinese area most actively involved in foreign contacts.
Several of the largest corruption cases revealed so far have centered on the southern province and its largest city of Canton, where Western businessmen and overseas Chinese enter easily from Hong Kong with the latest foreign gadgets and ideas.
Last week, top officials of an electronics firm set up to do business with foreigners in a special import-export zone were sacked and charged with smuggling hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong television sets, watches and radio-cassette players.
Other graft investigations in Guangdong have uncovered a bribery scheme by an arts and crafts company official, theft of state supplies by a transportation firm official, and smuggling rings involving chiefs of the Canton Postal Bureau and seven customs officers.
"It makes you sick to think that officials of the Communist Party eat so well from illegal gains," a party ideologist said in Peking recently.
A new law was recently approved calling for the death penalty for officials convicted of some types of corruption, but no one has yet been executed.