Premier Li Peng, opening the annual meeting of the Chinese parliament, warned Monday that China is floundering in the worst crisis of its decade-old economic reforms and will need several years of slow, controlled effort to right itself.

In a keynote report to the first session of the National People's Congress, the nominal legislature, Li painted a grim and unusually frank portrait of economic and social disruptions presenting an unprecedented challenge to the 40-year-old communist leadership.The session opened amid the worst economic problems to face China since senior leader Deng Xiaoping launched the market-oriented reforms in 1978. The country is plagued by record inflation, rampant corruption, widening gaps between rich and poor and the threat of civil unrest.

Deng, 84, whose only remaining official post is chairman of the communist party military commission but in the past has attended parliament sessions, did not attend. There was no explanation for his absence, although he has been reported recently to be suffering health problems.

In the 21/2-hour address, Li, as premier the head of government, called inflation the country's most outstanding problem, saying last year's price rises were "more than individual consumers, businesses and the state could endure."

He also admitted China's ability to feed itself has faltered, branding agriculture "the weakest link in the national economy" and calling for broad efforts to improve the grain harvest.

"We were too optimistic," Li told the nearly 2,800 delegates gathered for the annual parliament session in the huge oval auditorium of Beijing's Great Hall of the People. "There was a tendency to be too impatient for quick results."

Although the leadership remains committed to the reforms, which have invigorated the economy and raised living standards for most Chinese, their pace has been too swift, with freedoms granted under the reforms getting out of control, Li said.

Greater efforts are needed to curb rising crime rates, child labor, illiteracy and prostitution, he said. He also hinted a tough economic retrenchment begun last fall will last longer than the two years originally promised.

"Beginning this year, we shall work hard for two or more years," Li said. He noted the reimposition of controls on prices and in other economic sectors has begun to cool the overheated economy, but added flatly the government was still not in control.

"The results achieved so far are merely preliminary, falling far short of the goal," he said. "Both government and people should be mentally prepared for a few years of austerity."

Unless inflation, unofficially estimated at more than 30 percent, is curbed, Li said, "economic stability and development will be out of the question."

Li's report indicated the measure of concern at growing public discontent over the economy. Although hammered out by Chinese leaders over several months, it reflected the rising influence of Li, a Soviet-trained engineer who has fought to slow the reform program, rein in the economy and assure greater stability.