Hu Qili, a member of China's Communist Party Politburo, has said that party members guilty of economic crimes could be subjected to the death penalty, according to a report published in the official People's Daily today.

Hu's statement, that those who "deserve to be killed should be killed," was regarded by some observers as the most explicit threat to date that one or more fairly high-ranking officials could be executed if convicted of economic crimes as part of a recently launched drive against corruption.

People's Daily, the country's leading newspaper, displayed on its front page an official New China News Agency report giving Hu's views on cleansing the party of corruption and other tasks facing the party's Secretariat, which handles day-to-day party affairs. Hu, who is a leading member, spoke at a graduation ceremony on Saturday at the central party school here.

According to the New China report, Hu said on the matter of corruption, "We should seize on the big cases, particularly those cases involving senior cadres and their sons and daughters."

If a senior official were executed, it would not be the first time in recent years. In January 1983, a prefectural chief in Guangdong Province was shot to death after being convicted of corruption. But to speak of cases involving "senior cadres" and their sons and daughters seems to point toward punishing someone at an even higher level.

"Senior cadre" usually refers to an official at the level of bureau director or above. At two unusual high-level party meetings on Jan. 6 and 9, it was announced that the central party organizations would take the lead in fighting corruption and set an example for the rest of the country. The implication was that those being singled out for punishment would not be in the provinces but at high levels of the party and government in Peking.

Hu's reference to "sons and daughters" of senior cadres comes at a time when Peking is rife with rumors about activities of the sons of several prominent officials who supposedly took advantage of their fathers' positions to enrich themselves through business deals.

Starting late last year, discontented university students began raising the issue of corruption along with other matters that troubled them. Party officials were dispatched to several universities to deter the students from further protests.

Li Ximing, the Communist Party chief for Peking, had to devote considerable time to refuting reports of favoritism shown toward the children of cadres in a meeting with students at Peking University late last year, according to a detailed account published in the school's newspaper.

The question of whether to execute some of those convicted of economic crimes may have arisen last September, when Chen Yun, the senior economic planner, pointed to corrupton as a major problem.

On Jan. 9, at a conference of more than 8,000 leading officials from the party, government and Army, Wang Zhaoguo, director of the party's Central Committee general office, indicated that those guilty of economic crimes might be subject to capital punishment. Hu's statement appeared to carry the warning to a higher level.

Executions in cases of murder or rape have been common in China. Now, in economic crimes, Hu said, the aim is to "kill one to warn a hundred."