BEIJING (AP) _ China's top newspapers Sunday heaped unusually lavish praise on former Defense Minister Peng Dehuai, the peasant general purged from the Communist Party for criticizing Mao Tse-tung's ruinous economic program.

In the People's Daily, the party's main organ, elder statesman Bo Yibo expressed regret for not joining Peng in standing up to Mao's Great Leap Forward of 1958, the mobilization of peasants into self-sufficient ''people's communes.''

Several leading newspapers also carried an article by President Yang Shangkun, praising the publication of Peng's selected writings on military affairs to mark the 90th anniversary of his birth.

The prominent tributes to Peng, who died four years before he was officially rehabilitated in 1978, may have been intended to encourage people to fight record-high inflation and rampant corruption after 10 years of market-oriented economic reform.

The party has launched a campaign against officials who have illegally profited from China's modernization and open-door policies and, in an effort to control inflation, has at least temporarily halted moves to reduce central planning and increase market freedom.

''Our economic reforms have reached a critical stage, hope and difficulties exist together,'' Bo said at the end of his 8,000-plus-character article that covered most of the back page of the party newspaper.

''All party members ought to carry forward (Peng's) revolutionary spirit of pioneering and seeking truths'' to develop China, said Bo, an 80-year-old former vice premier who now holds the largely honorary post of vice chairman of the party Central Advisory Commission.

Bo's article, titled ''Unforgettable Recollections,'' also appeared to attack Mao by praising one of his most prominent critics.

Although Chinese leaders openly acknowledge Mao's mistakes in launching the Great Leap Forward in 1958 and the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76, he has not suffered bitter official attacks in a manner similar to the Soviet criticism of Stalin.

Peng was purged from the party in September 1959, shortly after his attack on Mao's policies. Peng died Nov. 29, 1974, and was officially rehabilitated in 1978, two years after Mao died.