A commune that used to grow little but grain now looks to export-oriented industries to fill its membes' rice bowls. "Last year our total output came to nearly 52 million yuan [about $34.6 million]," said Shen Jinrong, a broad-shouldered man with a wind-burned face who heads of the director's office of Malou Commune.
"Of that total, only 5.7 million yuan [about $3.8 million] came from agriculture. The great bulk, more than 36 million yuan [$24 million] came from our 69 factories. And 60 percent of that output is exported.
"Last year our agricultural output was 13.7 percent lower than the year before. We had too much rain through the summer and suffered extensive damage because of a typhoon.
"But our industrial output went up by 47.3 percent last year. That is why, on the average, our commune members' income increased by about 10 percent despite our poor harvest."
Although final figures were not available at the time I visited the bustling commune 27 kilometers (about 17 miles) northeast of Shanghai proper, Mr. Shen estimated that the average income per worker would come to around 700 yuan ($462 ) for the full year.
That is quite good for a country where the average industrial wage is around 60 yuan ($40) per month.
Malou's success story is shared by many of its neighbors in the rich alluvial delta surrounding Shanghai, China's largest city, largest port, and center of a wide range of industries ranging from tiny neighborhood workshops to huge textile mills, diesel plants, and petrochemical complexes.
But what Malou has achieved is as yet hardly imaginable to the vast majority of China's agricultural communes. With infinite patience, and depending almost entirely on organized muscle-power, the 80 percent of China's billion people who live on the soil grow the grain to feed themselves and 200 million city dwellers , as well as most of the cotton to clothe them and the industrial crops to fuel export-earning light industry.
Most communes are still almost entirely agricultural, which means their members' income remains low. "If we had nothing but our crops, I doubt we could pay members more than 100 yuan a year," Mr. Shen said. "In fact, in 1958, when this comune was formed, average income per person was only 52 yuan per year [ about $34]. In those days our total output was just 2,470,000 yuan -- and all about 20,000 of that came from agriculture."
China's present leaders -- Party Vice-Chairman Deng Xiaoping, Premier Zhao Ziyang, and Deputy Premier Was Li --kind of diversification and industrialization that Malou has achieved. Their success as yet is limited, but they believe this is the only way China's rural millions can be lifted out of endemic poverty and turn themselves into engines of economic growth.
Malou has 30,400 inhabitants living in 7,600 families. The commune was formed in 1958 when 17 villages (today called production brigades) came together. These villages in turn were subdivided into 149 hamlets, or production teams.
Malou has 2,020 hectares (5,050 acres) of cultivated land, the main products being grain, cotton, and oil-bearing plants. Peasants retain 50 square meters (less than 8 by 8 yards) each of private plots, on which they grown vegetables and fodder for their own use and that of their pigs and poultry.
Besides these crops, the commune encourages sideline occupations, from freshwater fisheries to animal husbandry and growing mushrooms. Income from these activities reached nearly 10 million yuan last year.
But it is industry that provides the lion's share of Malou's income. This trend began in the late 1960s and was accelerated after the downfall of the so-called "gang of four" (headed by Mao Tse-tung's widow, Jiang Qing) in the autumn of 1976. With 7,000 workers in industry, nearly half the commune's work force is nonagricultural.
Malou has about 900 hectares (2,250 acres) of rivers and ponds, and one of its more exotic sidelines is raising cultured pearls. The quality as yet would scarcely rival that of neighboring Japan, but in 1979 Malou already harvested 144 kilograms (317 pounds) of pearls.
It has 100,000 square meters of mushrooms, most of which are exported. It produces citric acid from sweet potatoes. It makes birthday candles, basketware and other handicrafts, and metal toys (10,000 pieces a day) -- all for export. It has two garment workshops turning out a total of 7,000 shirts per day -- again for export. This year it expects to set up a factory producing cardboard cartons for the export packaging industry.
One of the shirt factories, and the planned cardboard factory, exemplify a trend pioneered by Shanghai -- joint ventures between manufacturers in the city and agricultural communes outside.
This first shirt factory, built a couple of years ago, makes shirts according to orders received from a government sales organization in Shanghai. The commune is paid a minimal 1 yuan per completed shirt.
Dissatisfied with this arrangement the commune, decided to seek a joint venture with a Shanghai manufacturer to build a second shirt factory. It found a partner in Shanghai's No. 3 shirt factory. Each partner put up half the investment cost of 700,000 yuan -- the Shanghai factory supplying machines and technology, the commune providing land and labor. The profits will also be split 50-50.
"We haven't worked out the price per shirt, but we will earn a lot more than we do on the other shift factory," said Mr. Shen.
The cardboard carton factory is a 2 million-yuan investment, with the Shanghai Foreign Trade Packing Company, a government concern, putting up 40 percent and the commune 60 percent. Again, the commune will provide land and labor; the Shanghai company, the machines and the technology. The partners expect to make 1.2 million yuan ($800,000) in profits each year. The profits will be divided 40-60 between the company and the commune.
In contrast to the egalitarianism of the days of the Cultural Revolution ( 1966-76), the commune today encourages wage differentation, with some workers being paid as little as 450 yuan per year, and others being allowed to earn well over 1,000 yuan per year.
Everyone, of course, would like to work in a factory. Few wish the hard work and relatively low wages of agricultural fieldwork. A family with four working members, let us say, is therefore allowed two jobs in nonagricultural work. A commune member we visited in the Nan Malou production brigade, for instance, had his wife and eldest son working in the fields. One daughter worked in a shirt factory, another son in a bridge-building unit.