In the strongest move so far in the latest campaign to end high-level corruption, China has executed a local Communist official for taking $35,000 in contraband and bribes.

The execution of Wang Zhong for the kind of corruption that might bring a relatively brief prison term for a convicted U.S. politician was carried out publicly yesterday in traditional Chinese style--a single bullet fired into the nape of the neck.

The condemned man was shown tonight on Chinese television minutes before his death, sitting nervously in a heavy wooden chair with his hands manacled behind him. Thousands of spectators circled him in an open field in Guangzhou province as a judge, waving documents, yelled out the execution order. The camera quickly cut to sheets of cash and hundreds of wristwatches, television sets, radios and tape recorders he was convicted of embezzling.

Wang, 56, once the chief party leader of a Guangzhou county, was the first official to be executed under the new death-penalty provisions of Peking's get-tough anticorruption campaign.

People's Daily hailed his punishment as "immense satisfaction to the people."

"This strict but justified verdict serves as a heavy blow and stern warning to criminals who have furiously sabotaged the socialist economy," said the official newspaper in a front-page editorial today.

Since the well-publicized war on venality opened last March, the Communist government says it has uncovered more than 136,000 cases of "economic crime," which is a euphemism for old-fashioned, Tammany Hall-style scams--albeit with a socialist spin.

Among grafters nabbed so far have been the "cement king" of south China who took $80,000 in kickbacks for parceling out rationed building materials, trade officials who accepted 17 Swiss wristwatches while traveling abroad, the entire Communist Party committee of a Guangzhou factory implicated in a $15 million smuggling racket, power company figures known as the "electric despots" accused of embezzling $750,000 and commune bosses who sold $7,000 worth of spoiled rice seedlings to poor peasants.

Although the investigations have kept headline writers busy for months, they have resulted in relatively light penalties for convicted offenders and have carefully detoured the top party echelons despite reports of widespread graft among some relatives of national leaders.

For Chinese skeptics who have watched previous governments decimate their political adversaries in the name of "clean government," the current campaign has been seen as a classic case of "only swatting at flies, not at tigers."

Wange, who was top party leader in Haifeng county from 1979 to 1981 and later was promoted to a higher level post, had been a rising political star since the moderates now running China seized power in the late 1970s.

Like other Guangzhou cadres, however, Wang was unable to resist the easy temptations, or "sugar-coated bullets" in Chinese Communist parlance, offered by the rampant smuggling into China of everything from bicycles to pornographic movies. The contraband originated in the British colony of Hong Kong just a short distance across the border.

Fulfilling his duties, Wang made sure the contraband was seized and carefully stored in warehouses dotting his county, according to People's Daily.

But, the newspaper pointed out, he was equally thorough in raiding the warehouses for his own gain. Under the pretext of serving the "needs of leading cadres," he stole 263 wristwatches, 17 radio cassette recorders, electric fans, televisions and other items valued at $29,000.

Wang also collected bribes--$6,000 in cash, refrigerators, televisions and recorders--in exchange for his permission to travel to Hong Kong, it was reported.

People's Daily, holding that officials should use their power for the common weal not woe, blamed Wang for infecting other local cadres with his corruption and contributing to social disorder.

"The law will be enforced strictly and impartially on criminals who sabotage the economy," warned the newspaper, "no matter who they are, no matter where they work and no matter what their position."

For western diplomats, the execution was a convincing measure of the government's seriousness, if not a case of swatting flies with sledgehammers.

"It's a nice little footnote for a human rights report on China," said one envoy.