China’s ruling Communist Party opened a quinquennial conclave Thursday with a stark warning from its outgoing leader, President Hu Jintao, that the 91-year-old party could collapse if it fails to rein in rampant corruption that has produced myriad scandals in recent months and caused widespread public disaffection.

Hu, who will relinquish his title of party secretary general next week at the end of this 18th Party Congress, appeared to dash earlier hopes that this meeting would make a nod to real political reform and jettison seemingly outdated references to China’s first Communist leader, Mao Zedong. Instead, Hu spoke of the need to improve only “intra-party democracy” and “socialist democracy,” and he extolled the virtues of “Mao Zedong Thought.”

In an otherwise pro forma speech, filled with the usual Communist Party jargon and stretching well past an hour, Hu used strong language when he turned to the need to fight corruption, which many have said is the main reason for a growing popular discontent.

“If we fail to handle this issue well, it could prove fatal to the party and even cause the collapse of the party and the fall of the state,” Hu said, reading from his prepared text. “We should strengthen education about combating corruption and promoting clean government and improving the culture of clean government.”

“We must maintain a tough position in cracking down on corruption at all times, conduct thorough investigations into major corruption cases and work hard to resolve problems of corruption that directly affect the people,” he said.

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Hu made no specific mention of the recent scandals that have roiled the country. Last year, Liu Zhijun, the country’s powerful and high-profile railways minister, was sacked after reportedly taking kickbacks totaling $150 million and keeping a bevy of 18 mistresses. This year saw the ouster of Politburo member and Chongqing party chief Bo Xilai, who was accused of massive corruption and other misdeeds, including helping his wife, Gu Kailai, cover up the murder of a British businessman after a financial deal went awry.

Bloomberg News reported in June on the more than $300 million in wealth amassed through multiple holding companies by extended family members of Vice President Xi Jinping, who is slated to take over as party secretary general at the end of this session. And in October, the New York Times, citing public regulatory filings, reported that the family of Prime Minister Wen Jiabao controlled assets worth $2.7 billion. Neither report accused Xi or Wen of involvement in corruption.

Hu, in his address, outlined no specific new steps to combat corruption or restore public confidence. He stressed the importance of strictly enforcing the party’s internal discipline mechanisms.

“No one is allowed to place oneself above the party organization,” Hu said at one point. “We must ensure that all are equal before discipline.”

Some here considered that line an oblique reference to the case of Bo, who was seen here as using the force of his personality and his “Chongqing model” of development to create a populist, cult-like following, particularly among members of China’s “new leftists.” After his fall, Bo was regularly derided by state-run news media for trying to place himself above the party.

On the sidelines of Thursday’s conclave, members of the Chongqing delegation met separately in a session open to the news media, and the party chief, Zhang Dejiang, was asked about the future of Bo’s Chongqing model, which emphasized more equitable distribution of growth and affordable housing for the poor.

“I don’t think any Chongqing model exists at all,” Zhang replied emphatically.

The North Korean-trained Zhang, who is considered a leading candidate for promotion to the all-important Politburo Standing Committee, was also asked about a recent report in the Wall Street Journal that Neil Heywood, the Briton whose murder in Chongqing brought about Bo’s downfall, may have been unofficially working for Britain’s intelligence services when he was killed. “So far, I have not heard of any proof that will prove he was a spy,” Zhang said.

The congress opened amid a strict security clampdown in Beijing and official jitters over any possible disruption to the carefully choreographed festivities. Known dissidents have been confined to their homes or removed from the city. Taxicabs have been told to disable the window cranks in the back to prevent passengers from throwing subversive leaflets out the windows. Stores have been ordered not to sell any kind of knives, including kitchen knives, during the session.

On Wednesday morning, the U.S. Embassy hosted a party in a Beijing hotel ballroom to watch the U.S. election returns. But on Tuesday, Chinese officials, including academics, who had been invited and planned to attend were strongly discouraged from going, an American diplomat said.

The diplomat said a Chinese security official also inquired whether the embassy had received “permission” for the gathering, but the embassy informed the official that they did not need permission.

The diplomat said he thought the order for Chinese officials not to attend and questions about getting permission for the gathering were probably because of nervousness over having such an event so close to the party congress’s opening.

Wang Juan in Beijing contributed to this report.