LIFE appears to be normal in Beijing. The Communist Party chief Chen Xitong pops up on television news most nights attending meetings, opening exhibitions or planting trees. Yet behind the walls of the municipal government's compound off Tiananmen Square, all real work has ceased. The continuing investigation into corruption among Mr Chen's deputies has paralysed decision-making. Chinese sources describe the atmosphere as a mixture of terror and anger. No one knows who will be arrested next and what sort of fate awaits those already hauled in for questioning. The manner of the investigation has all the hallmarks of a familiar political purge. It traditionally begins by arresting those people who are lower down in the hierarchy. In this case a succession of the aides of top cadres. This way, depending on how the wind blows, the purge could stop at a low level or the evidence provided by the secretaries could be used to condemn their superiors. Traditionally punishment is an internal matter carried out along a fixed routine. Usually about five per cent of the cadres are ever deemed rotten apples and reprimanded. Only one per cent are usually put on trial. In the past, the party has preferred to treat officials found guilty of political crimes internally but the rules are changing for officials who betray public trust for financial gain. Officials are being investigated in cases involving such huge sums of money that in this case the penalty may be execution. So far the most senior official to be shot for corruption has been a vice minister. If a scandal is so big that a deputy mayor, Wang Baosen, preferred to commit suicide rather than brazen it out, the next victim could be several ranks higher. An investigation team from the central party has been deployed much to anger of the Beijing party. Cadres are rumoured to have drawn up protests, challenging the right of central party organs to cast the first stone. Until now nothing has been said directly about the results of the investigations either to the general public or to the more lower-ranking party members. The uncertainty has spawned widespread rumours about the deaths of suspects in detention. There is little public sympathy for those arrested. There are numerous tales abounding about how many mistresses, imported cars, children in Western universities and money stashed in foreign bank accounts that these top Beijing officials have. With so much to hide, those detained are said to be making charges and counter-charges against their superiors or colleagues. Yet the investigations have been going on for so long without any charges being made that some believe party leader Jiang Zemin is uncertain what to do next. Having vowed to root out the cancer of corruption from the party, he has now found that it has spread so far that it goes from the bottom to the very highest levels. This makes it difficult to decide how to present the results of the investigations. Working teams have examined four major cases of corruption but in each case have uncovered a trail that leads up to the Politburo. If this is revealed and Jiang Zemin does decide to name names, it will not only be damaging for the reputation of the party but will also confirm the popular belief that it is rotten to the core. However Mr Jiang is believed by many to have achieved his political goal of using the corruption probe as a means to force Mr Chen out of his post. No announcement of his replacement, who is certain to be a Jiang loyalist, is expected to be made for some time. Several Party elders have cautioned Mr Jiang on his handling of the problem. They have urged him to consider the implications of exposing graft at such top levels. By doing so Mr Jiang will then have to confront head on a fundamental political problem - the nationwide involvement of officials in commercial activities. All over China party cadres whether in the army, security apparatus or municipal governments have invested and speculated in all sorts of projects and schemes. Which of them are illegal? Who is safe?