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China's leader-elect: 'Worms' of corruption could destroy Communist Party

Lintao Zhang / Getty Images

Xi Jinping, one of the members of new seven-seat Politburo Standing Committee, delivers a speech after being appointed the new Communist Party of China leader last week.

BEIJING -- If corruption is allowed to run wild in China then the ruling Communist Party risks major unrest and the collapse of its rule, state media on Monday quoted Communist Party chief Xi Jinping as saying at one of his first major meetings since taking the role.

In unusually blunt language, Vice President Xi, who assumes Hu Jintao's job as head of state in March, said that graft was like "worms breeding in decaying matter" -- an old Chinese phrase meaning "ruin befalls those who are weak."

"In recent years, some countries have stored up problems over time leading to seething public anger, civil unrest and government collapse -- corruption has been an important factor in all this," state newspapers quoted Xi as telling a study session for the Politburo, the party's second-highest decision-making body.

"A great deal of facts tell us that the worse corruption becomes the only outcome will be the end of the party and the end of the state! We must be vigilant!" Xi was quoted as saying.

"Recently, our party has had serious discipline and legal cases of a despicable nature which has had a bad political effect and shocked people," he added, without naming any of these incidents.

In his remarks, Xi dwelled at length on the importance of the party's theoretical foundations in Marxism, Leninism and the ideas espoused by his predecessors, but said leaders also had to be mindful of the practical realities of running the country and to reconnect with the population.

Recent scandals
The period leading up to this month's party congress -- at which a new generation of leaders was unveiled -- was overshadowed by a scandal involving former political heavyweight Bo Xilai, once a contender for top leadership in the world's second-largest economy.

China's ruling Communist Party has selected Xi Jinping as the country's new leader. Xi faces a faltering economy, environmental issues, demands for political reforms, as well as rampant corruption and public cynicism. NBC's Ian Williams reports.

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Bo was expelled from the party this year and faces possible charges of corruption and abuse of power, while his wife was jailed for murdering a British businessman.

Xi said that party members, especially those at senior levels, should not abuse their positions for personal gain, and that they were not above the law.

Officials "must also strengthen their management and control over their relations and those who work with them," Xi added.

The New York Times said last month that the family of Premier Wen Jiabao had accumulated at least $2.7 billion in "hidden riches," a report China labeled a smear.

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However, without an independent judiciary, efforts to fight graft will almost certainly falter, and the control-obsessed party has shown no sign of embarking on this reform.

Xi's language was unusually direct for a top leader, indicating his seriousness about the problem, but his speech gave few indications of how the party could better police itself, said Jean-Pierre Cabestan, a political scientist at Hong Kong Baptist University.

"He used strong words. It was clearly a warning: 'We have to do something about this,'" Cabestan said. "Clearly, for him, the crux of the matter is corruption. The trouble is, of course, that he doesn't tell us much about what are going to be the efficient tools or weapons he will put together to fight corruption."

Read more on China from NBC's Behind the Wall

Critique of predecessors?
Xi also emphasized the need to narrow the gap between the party and the people in what seemed like an implicit critique of his predecessors, said Willy Lam, a political analyst at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.

Lam said Xi's frequent references to "the people" in his speech indicated that "the past two decades have resulted somehow in the people feeling alienated from the party."

"Now what he's saying is that from day one is that we shall stick to the people. We will do what the people want," Lam said.

Reuters and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

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