Twenty-four Communist Party leaders in a northeastern Chinese city have been disciplined for trying to shield their sons from punishment for rape, according to the official New China news agency.

The cadres' sons were involved in three gangs comprising more than 60 "hooligans," the news agency said, adding that of 36 who were found guilty by a court last year, five were sentenced to death. Others received prison sentences.

The case of the gang members, who apparently terrorized the medium-sized city of Beian for four years, came to light in the official Chinese press last year. The new element in the case appeared to be the degree to which local party leaders tried to protect their sons.

The behavior of sons and daughters of high-ranking party cadres is a subject much talked about in China but seldom mentioned in public. But the Beian case appeared to be so serious that it had to be settled to maintain the party's image and clear the slate for an upcoming special party conference.

The complicity of high-ranking cadres in the attempted cover-up of their sons' activities was so great that the result has been a complete reorganization of the Beian city leadership, New China News Agency indicated.

A report appearing in April of last year in the People's Daily, the Communist Party newspaper, indicated that the 60 gang members were jailed only after provincial officials were sent in to investigate. They apparently were able to operate for four years because of the protection provided by their fathers. The newspaper said two of the gangs, named "The Five Tigers" and "The Two Wolves," committed more than 300 crimes of rape, gang rape and "hooliganism" during the four years.

In a report issued today and published on the front page of the People's Daily, the news agency said that the cadres involved included Ren Jinglong, vice chairman of the standing committee of the Beian city People's Congress and Gu Guodong, chairman of the city committee of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference.

Ren Jinglong, whose son was sentenced to life imprisonment, was expelled from the Communist Party, New China News Agency said, after he tried to shield his son from investigation and refused to report those of his son's crimes that he knew about. Judiciary authorities were pursuing the possibility of criminal responsibility in Ren's case, the news agency said.

"He even went in person to see the victims of his son to hush the scandal up," the report said.

The news agency said Gu Guodong was expelled from the party for his "failure to educate his son," who was sentenced to death, and for turning away a young woman raped by his son who had gone to his home to report the case.

New China News Agency also said that Liu Qingtian, a section leader of the agency in charge of the city's police and investigative forces, received a warning from the Communist Party for "knowing of his son's criminal activities but failing to adopt measures to stop him."