BEIJING -- One day last summer, China's commerce minister walked into a department store in a central Chinese city and bought a pair of leather shoes. The shoes fell apart the next day. The outraged minister got his money back.

But average Chinese consumers aren't so lucky. Most of them have little choice but to put up with mediocre or downright poor quality in everything from shoes to shampoo. In China, the retailers' dictum of caveat emptor -- let the buyer beware -- reigns supreme.

More than four decades of Communist rule have left Chinese consumers accustomed to buying chipped tea mugs, lopsided rice bowls and light bulbs that go out after a few hours. The economic reforms of the past 12 years have brought major change to millions of factories, but they have yet to make a big dent on something as basic as quality control.

Buying almost any product in a store in China often means asking a surly salesclerk to bring out several of the same item so one can choose those with the fewest defects.

The goods that China sells abroad are subject to stricter quality control checks, but even with these products, overall quality is still low compared with exports of other countries. As China relies increasingly on exports of light industrial goods to earn needed foreign exchange, quality control is likely to be a critical problem.

Concerned about the issue, Chinese officials have designated 1991 to be a "year of quality, variety and economic results." Vice Premier Tian Jiyun made the point bluntly during a conference on export industries last November, saying, "No more shoddy goods must be exported," and he called for stricter inspection of manufacturers.

The sale of shoddy goods overseas in the last few years has "greatly damaged the reputation of Chinese products on the world market," according to Zhu Zhenyuan, director general of the State Administration of Import and Export Commodity Inspection.

Economic losses caused by inferior quality products cost China about $38 billion, nearly 10 percent of China's 1989 GNP.

But Western analysts say no amount of inspection or punishment will be able to solve the root problem. "Until firms are made responsible for their own profits and losses, they can't even begin to worry about quality control," said one economist.

Under China's socialist system, many government-subsidized factories still produce goods according to state quotas, where quantity is usually the most important criterion. Whether or not a product can be sold -- or is needed -- is often not taken into account in these state-run factories. In addition, workers are seldom fired, a policy designed to maintain social stability.

"By and large, factories in China are units of social welfare rather than units of production," said one longtime Western business executive. "The factory manager, the party committee, they all see their main purpose as providing housing and food for their workers, rather than making good teacups."

Even though some reforms have been introduced to give factory managers more independence from Communist Party controls, those reforms have not gone far enough to make many large and medium-sized state industries economically efficient.

Examples of shoddy goods abound. One U.S. importer of 44.6 million pencils found that many of the erasers fell off and the lead was not centered. The Taiyuan Cotton Textile Mill in northern Shaanxi province was penalized last year for exporting cloth that was filled with rotten apples.

Meanwhile, the All-China Women's Federation reports that the high incidence of gynecological disease among Chinese women in Beijing is directly related to the poor quality of sanitary napkins. A sample survey of 23 brands of sanitary napkins produced by 20 enterprises in Beijing found that more than 80 percent of the products carried mold and bacillus.

"The quality of consumer products is very poor," said Kenneth Stephens, a specialist on quality control who was based in China for the United Nations Industrial Development Organization. "There is a core of people who know all the buzzwords of the quality profession, but that doesn't get down to the enterprise level."

A few years ago, the Ministry of Light Industry was preparing to hold an exhibition displaying some of the country's worst products, including fire prevention equipment that caused fires and wine that fatally poisoned scores of people. The exhibit was never held. Reports at that time said many state-run factories pressured the ministry into backing down. Ministry officials deny that was the reason.

While acknowledging that quality control is a problem, the officials are quick to blame the private enterprises that have sprung up in recent years as a result of the economic reforms and are outside the state sector and harder to regulate. These enterprises can change their products depending on market demand.

Shoes are a prime example. The China Consumer Association, established in 1984 to serve as an outlet for dissatisfied customers, reports receiving more complaints about shoes and sneakers than about any other commodity, three times as many complaints last year than the previous year.

The problem was so serious that Chinese authorities set up a special National Leading Group for Readjusting Shoe Products. Beijing television began broadcasting special segments teaching consumers what kinds of shoes to avoid (those without trademarks or the name and address of the factory).

"It used to be that people wanted shoes that they could wear for a long time. We used to say the shoes were so sturdy they could kill a cow," said Liu Yuanying, an association official. "But nowadays, young people just want fashion . . . and they don't notice where the shoes are made."

Many of the shoe factories are enterprises in townships and villages in southern China, she said. Labor is cheap, little technology is required, and profits are big. The enterprises, often more interested in turning a quick profit than producing high quality, can make a greater variety of shoes at cheaper prices than state-run factories.

"I bought my son a pair of . . . sneakers around National Day {Oct.1} and a few months later, they came apart at the heel," said one shopper in her early fifties at Long Fu Da Xia, one of Beijing's largest department stores. She paid about 85 yuan, or about $17 for the sneakers, not much by American standards but a hefty price considering the average worker's monthly income is about 200 yuan.

Chinese consumers say they seldom bother to complain about poor quality products. "You can't do anything about it," said a woman in her thirties, who was trying on leather boots. "If you like it, you just buy it. You have to take your chances."