SHENYANG, CHINA -- Five years ago, this gray industrial city was seen as a pioneer in economic reform. Today, Shenyang opts more for stability than change, and its smokestacks seem to symbolize pollution rather than progress.

Shenyang was particularly hard-hit by a nationwide economic austerity program that was initiated two years ago.The program succeeded in its main goal of curbing rampant inflation, but it also brought about a drop in industrial production and a considerable rise in unemployment.

Shenyang, situated 400 miles northeast of Beijing in the heavily industrialized region once known as Manchuria, is supposed to be one of the economic powerhouses of China. But economic power and influence have been slipping away from Shenyang and many other northern cities in recent years while a more dynamic southern China maintains a pioneering role.

Northeast China does have some economic bright spots. In the city of Dalian, whose expanded harbor serves as the major port for the region's hinterland, efficient industries and foreign businessmen, particularly from Japan, have kept the economy growing. Some parts of the northeast are also benefiting greatly from cross-border trade with the Soviet Union. But overall, the region is in the doldrums.

Shenyang, the capital of Liaoning Province, once pioneered some of China's most controversial reforms, including the country's first experiments in bankruptcy and bond sales.

In the spring of 1986, it became the first city in China since the Communists took power four decades ago to open a public bond market. In July 1986, Shenyang allowed one of the city's smaller factories to go bankrupt, a hotly debated move in a country where the state normally guarantees workers their jobs for life. But neither of these two experiments went very far.

Shenyang's failure is not only economic. As in many other parts of China, social order and moral standards appear to be crumbling.

On the surface, the city's malaise is not readily apparent. Although sections of the city's housing look like the slums of Western industrialized cities, most people appear to be reasonably well-fed and well-clothed.

But decay is evident in the streets, where the authorities have posted lists of 20 most-wanted criminals, reflecting an increase in major crimes in recent years. The accused, whose pictures are shown on posters, are charged with murders, rapes, theft and corruption.

Prostitutes, not seen five years ago in Shenyang, are now bold enough to approach a foreigner after midnight outside a sleazy hotel catering to Chinese coming from Taiwan and Hong Kong.

A taxi driver said there is a large part of this city of 3 million people where he does not feel safe: the heavily polluted Tiexi section of the city, where, he said, people often ask for rides but then refuse to pay. The driver attributes the rising crime rate to unemployment, which he says has grown as a result of the industrial slowdown.

"The people in the city are very much worried about crime," said the driver. "There have been so many murders and robberies. . . . Quite a few cab drivers have been killed."

According to a factory worker, several of those on the most-wanted list are soldiers who turned on their officers and stole weapons before taking up a life of crime, but this could not be confirmed.

Shenyang, once rated as the second most polluted city in the world by the United Nations, according to the official New China News Agency, has made some gains in the battle against pollution. A lead smelter, pharmaceutical factory and several other key factories have launched major anti-pollution measures, the news agency said.

But Li Changchun, a reform-minded official who served as governor of Liaoning Province until recently, spoke in one of his final speeches of the "sluggish spirit" that affects not only Shenyang but also the rest of Liaoning Province.

At a provincial economic conference in mid-June, Li said that "the economic situation, especially the situation in industrial production, is very grim."

Li's speech was considered unusually hard-hitting at a time when most government officials tend to stress the positive in their public pronouncements.

Li said that Liaoning's industrial profits were declining and debts increasing. The province's products, many of them manufactured by heavily subsidized state industries, lacked a competitive edge, he said.

He also said that the people in the province lacked an enterprising or pioneering spirit and tended to look to others for assistance rather than relying on their own initiative.

"To change the sluggish market, we should first change our sluggish spirit," he declared.