AN axiom of Chinese politics is that whenever the economy is not holding up, the authorities crack down on criminals, wheelers and dealers and ''bourgeois-liberals''. In tandem with the 16-point austerity programme early July, Beijing has launched one of its toughest campaigns to combat hard-core felons and corrupt cadres and businessmen. The situation this year seems especially urgent given that ''vicious crimes'' - those involving triads and firearms - have risen alarmingly. And in the spring the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) kicked off what elders including Deng Xiaoping called a ''life-and-death struggle'' against corruption. While the anti-crime and anti-graft crusades are, at the least, a case of better late than never, their conduct raises disturbing questions. Especially for those concerned about the prospect of the rule of law, deemed by the party's liberal wing as the sine qua non for the success of the market economy. Earlier this year, partisans of reform were encouraged by the appointment of moderate leaders Qiao Shi and Tian Jiyun as Chairman and Vice-Chairman of the National People's Congress respectively. Since April, Mr Qiao and Mr Tian have given numerous speeches underscoring the importance of a modern legal system as well as the supervision of the party and government by the legislature. The drive just announced against felons and graft-takers, on the other hand, smacks of a Maoist political campaign. It also testifies to the fact that when Beijing is bedevilled by economic malaise and uncertainties about the succession, the CCP will tighten its grip over the judiciary and security apparatus. It was the politburo Standing Committee which launched the anti-crime campaign on July 12. The crusade, code-named ''hit them hard'', is being run by the Commission for the Comprehensive Treatment of Social Order (CCTSO), which is headed by Ren Jianxin in his capacity as Secretary of the party's Political and Legal Commission, China's highest authority on judicial and security matters. Western jurists will be alarmed by the fact that, instead of asking the police and courts just to enforce the law, the politburo and the CCTSO seem to have foisted political - and extra-legal - demands on them. In an apparent attempt to produce quick results - and front-page headlines - the CCP has in effect asked policemen and judges to wheel out their biggest guns. ''We must wage a specialised struggle whose major theme is to boost the strength of the hit-them-hard campaign,'' CCTSO cadres said in their meeting. ''Heavy sentences must be meted out to those who deserve them, and death sentences must be resolutely passed out to the deserving. There should be no ambiguity at all.'' SINCE mid-July, the provinces and big cities have held sessions to co-ordinate ''hit them hard'' efforts. For example, the head of the Guangdong Political and Legal Committee Chen Shaoji said last Friday that provincial police and judicial workers must ''beef up their combat strength'' in fighting felons and economic criminals. Given the groundswell against corruption, the CCP seems even more anxious to have something to show on the anti-graft front. In a recent dispatch from Beijing, the Chinese-run Hongkong daily Ta Kung Pao quoted a ''high-level figure'' as pledging that bigcases would be tackled - and publicised - within a short time. ''If we fail to crack a few major cases within a time frame, we will lose the trust of the people,'' the senior politician said. Another pro-Chinese Hongkong paper, Wen Wei Po, pointed out that the politburo Standing Committee had in April made a ''unanimous'' decision to arrest Yu Zuomin, the head of the Daqiuzhuang conglomerate of rural enterprises. Wen Wei Po hinted that the leadership was using the Yu example to show it was ''resolute'' in rectifying problems in the ''social atmosphere''. In recent weeks, police and procuratorate offices have publicised campaigns to hit ''big-time graft-takers'', which has led some Western diplomats to query whether Beijing has assigned specific ''quotas'' to the localities. The problem, of course, is that if the CCP at this moment finds it politically expedient to appear to be taking on the big boys, it might, at other times, deem it convenient to look the other way. And even given Beijing's repeated promises to ''snatch a few tigers'', serious doubts persist as to whether the CCTSO would get anywhere near cadres who have good connections or who are the offspring of party elders. While Yu might have been made an example of the CCP's willingness to stem ''high-level corruption'', Beijing is rife with speculation President Jiang Zemin has personally ordered that Yu, allegedly a good friend of Mr Deng's, would only be charged with the minor offence of obstructing police. Moreover, there is no indication either the CCTSO or any other supervision department has investigated widespread allegations of malfeasance among the offspring of senior cadres. After all, there is a political imperative behind Mr Deng's decision last year to allow cadres to ''branch out'' into business. A key lesson that the patriarch drew from the break-up of the Soviet party was that the CCP must ensure iron-clad domination over sectors including the army and business. JUSTICE has apparently also been politicised to ensure that Beijing can more efficiently defuse challenges from an even more dangerous quarter, the dissidents. A case in point is the unexpectedly harsh treatment Shanghai authorities have accorded the city's bourgeois-liberal intellectuals since the spring. The war on Shanghai dissidents climaxed with the detention of Fu Shenqi late June and the decision to slapa three-year laojiao (''education through labour'') term on the Democracy Wall activist. Laojiao is an ''administrative form of correctional punishment'' that can be dispensed by the police without consultation with the courts. Long criticised by watchdogs such as Amnesty International and AsiaWatch, the practice is seen as a violation of human rights because recipients can neither seek legal help nor lodge an appeal. Laojiao, however, has enabled the security apparatus to dispel quickly real and potential threats to the administration.