China's shift toward capitalism, which brought smiles in the West, is raising eye-brows among veteran communists here. They contend China's communist heritage is being compromised if not abandoned by the leadership's call last month to apply free-market principles in urban industry, similar to those introduced for agriculture in 1978.
Throughout China, however, tens of thousands of Communist Party and government leaders are faithfully attending meetings where they are exhorted to support the new economic reforms.
''Understand the spirit of the decision and eliminate all misgivings,'' one provincial party secretary told a group this month. ''Those who immediately regard a commodity (market) economy . . . and competition as 'capitalist' have totally wrong ideas,'' wrote the Communist Party newspaper, the People's Daily.
Virtually everyone in authority has been told to study the ''decision.'' But suspicions are apparently widespread among party cadres, whose doubts about the ideological correctness of the reforms could affect their success.
The new economic policies were approved at the third plenum session of the party's 12th Central Committee last month. A 42-page document made public Oct. 20 outlines policies which include decentralization of economic management and decisionmaking, elimination of many government subsidies and price and wage controls, and a large role in the economy for market forces. The actual implementation of these policies will occur in the months and years ahead.
The People's Daily, in a lengthy commentary written by Zhen Bijian and Luo Jingbo, set out to show how the new economic reforms differ from capitalism. The article tries to answer criticism from those who think the reforms are causing China to stray from the socialist path.
The authors confront, among other things, the criticism that the adoption of advanced methods of management from capitalist countries threatens socialism. These methods are nothing more than ways of increasing productivity, reducing costs, and organizing labor and resources, they wrote. Such methods are not inherently capitalist, but are the ''fruits of civilization,'' they said.
Another defender of the socialist faith, Su Shaozhi, director of the Institute of Marxism, Leninism, and Mao Tse-tung Thought under the Chinese Academy of Social Science, said that the reforms keep intact basic Marxist principles.
These include the public (state) ownership of the means of production and a distribution system that follows the precept ''to each according to his work.''
The Marxist distribution principle ''from each according to his ability, to each according to his need'' is too advanced for China at this stage of its development, Professor Su explained.
The principle of ''to each according to his work'' is now widely cited to justify material incentives, such as the bonus system and wages based on output.
According to the People's Daily commentary, the party Central Committee accepts the idea that the only way for the entire society to become prosperous is for some people to get rich first. Egalitarianism is an ''idle dream'' and is antagonistic to the Marxist version of socialism, the People's Daily said.
''The restructuring (of the economy) is to achieve prosperity for all but not necessarily at the same time. A polarization creating rich and poor groups will not take place,'' Professor Su said at a meeting with the press last week.
One other commonly heard argument is the distinction between state ownership of enterprises and their management. Publicly owned enterprises can be managed independently on a profit-and-loss basis while remaining under the ultimate control of the state, party officials explain.
To Western observers, this concern with ideology and economic theory may appear to be little more than an afterthought to decisions taken on practical grounds by a reform-minded leadership. China's political theorists do seem capable of erecting whatever Marxist defenses are needed for the country's latest policies, however capitalist those policies may be.
But a defensible political line is useful, if not necessary, for persuading many of the rank-and-file cadres to support the new policies. For one thing, it was not that long ago when, during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), that the nation was in turmoil and ideological nit-picking was a mandate for social violence.
For many cadres, political convictions are still a serious matter.
The ''selling'' of the reforms now under way in study groups and lecture halls throughout the country raises questions about what opposition the reforms are encountering and how the party deals with those who may air their doubts.
So far there appears to have been no open opposition to the reforms.
''There is nobody against this reform,'' insisted Zhang Song Jia, deputy editor in chief of the Economic Daily, the party's newly designated official voice on economic affairs.
Mr. Zhang emphasized in an interview that the party was persuading and not coercing people to accept the reforms.
"In the course of their study, we allow people to air their views, their misgivings and misunderstands. So long as we explain clearly, they will understand," he said.
"During the past five years, we have not 'struggled against' a single person for not fully understanding the rural economic reform policies," he said, implying a contrast between current practices and those during the Cultural Revolution when people were publicly humiliated and forced to criticize themselves for some political infraction.
China's leadership is hoping that the urban reforms will see the same turn of events as those carried out in the country-side. It was the doubling of rural incomes and impressive increases in agricultural production that ultimately melted objections to those reforms.
The Chinese may find it easy to argue over Marx, but the reformers are betting that even conservative party cadres will find it hard to argue with success.