China today executed six convicted smugglers, including two government officials who were accused of masterminding a contraband ring that evaded $48.3 million in taxes.

The executions in the southern port city of Zhanjiang ended the most far-reaching smuggling case ever to be publicized in Communist China. In all, 31 people -- including a total of seven high-ranking Communist Party officials -- were convicted on May 12 of smuggling more than 3,600 auto bodies, 248 cars, 190,000 tons of steel products, 40,000 tons of diesel fuel and 10,000 tons of raw sugar into the country between 1996 and 1998.

Those executed were Cao Xiukang, former head of customs in Zhanjiang; Zhu Xiangcheng, former director of customs investigations in Zhanjiang; three people from Hong Kong and another from elsewhere in China. Among the government officials incarcerated were the former Communist Party chief of Zhanjiang, Zhanjiang's former vice mayor, a customs chief and two police officers. All were sentenced to death but were granted two-year stays of execution, according to the official New China News Agency.

Under the leadership of Premier Zhu Rongji, China since last year has cracked down hard on smuggling, which is believed to bring $30 billion a year in contraband goods into the country. These include cars, oil, gas, lumber, newsprint, electrical items, chicken and fruit from California -- all of which are cheaper outside China.

The military is considered one of the chief perpetrators of smuggling in China. To date, however, no military officials have been accused of it publicly. A Chinese source with close ties to the country's security services noted that in Zhanjiang, where the navy controls port facilities, smuggling continues.

"This was a case that should have resulted in military men also being arrested," he said. "But they protected themselves, and only government people were implicated. They are smuggling now; they will smuggle tomorrow. They are the military, and no one can stop them."

Last July, as part of the anti-smuggling campaign, President Jiang Zemin ordered the Chinese army to give up all its commercial activities -- which included running brothels, Karaoke bars, hotels, discos and factories. To date, the divestment has been patchy.