China's Communist Party elite gathered in Beijing 10 years ago to cast off Mao Tse-tung's ideological yoke and set the nation on an uncharted path of capitalist-style economic reform.

That December 1978 meeting, the Third Plenum of the 11th Communist Party Central Committee, set China on a course that saw a surge of prosperity and political stability rarely enjoyed in the long-suffering nation.But the surge forward has had its backlashes. Inflation has reached a record high for the postwar years and economic growth threatens to lurch out of control. With the new affluence has come corruption, black marketeering, a sharp rise in crime and a broadening gap between rich and poor.

While China's economy has taken on a capitalistic bent, the Communist Party remains the dominant political force in the nation.

The 1978 plenum saw Deng Xiaoping consolidate his power as the overall leader. He declared that modernization, not Chairman Mao's class struggle, must be China's main goal. He also announced the return of family farming, called for introducing Western science and technology and rehabilitated thousands purged in the leftist 1966-76 Cultural Revolution.

Deng galvanized a people who for more than a decade could not grow tomatoes outside their homes for fear of being branded a "capitalist roader."

The demise of the commune and the return of the family farmer, and the shift from central planning to market-determined production, helped push the gross national product - the sum of all goods and services - to more than $270 billion in 1987, double what it was five years before.

Rural incomes, bolstered by thriving free markets, tripled in the past decade to 463 yuan ($125) annually per person. Annual per capita urban incomes doubled to 916 yuan ($247) last year.

Forty percent of industrial output, which has tripled since 1978, is produced by collective and private enterprises. Stores not owned by the state now account for almost two-thirds of retail sales.

Foreign trade last year reached $80 billion, double the 1980 period, and foreign businessmen have invested nearly $10 billion in joint ventures and wholly owned factories in China.

Beijing, once open only to like-minded foreigners from the East bloc or the Third World, has become a diplomatic crossroads. In the first 11 months of 1988, 24 foreign presidents and premiers were welcomed at the Great Hall of the People.

Rajiv Gandhi in December will be the first prime minister from India to visit China in 34 years.

Following the new creed of "to get rich is glorious," Chinese are obsessed with consumerism. In 1981 less than one out of 100 urban families had color television. Now one-third do. Washing-machine ownership has gone from 6 to 66 percent in that period.

The 10th anniversary of the reforms, however, has been a troubling one for China. Inflation, fueled by excessive demand and low productivity, is running, by official account, at 19 percent but believed to be closer to 40 percent. The government acknowledges the rate is 31 percent in large cities.

New building projects, backed by reckless bank lending, have pushed industrial growth to unsustainable levels. The nation has had four straight disappointing grain harvests, partly the result of farmers' reluctance to grow grain at low state-set prices.

China's commitment to reform, however, seems solid.

"Without reform," Communist General Secretary Zhao Ziyang said recently, "there will be no way out for China. If reform is not carried out today, it will have to be carried out in the future, but that will only prolong China's backwardness."