When a Chinese silk factory was unable to obtain funds for a new machine recently, over 300 workers bought ''shares'' in the plant, according to a government report.
For a communist nation, this unusual case of individual investment was made even more unusual by the fact that the workers contributed more than three months of their wages to the venture.
China's quest for new industry since 1978, which has faltered for a lack of capital, now includes ways to tap the workers for money.
New government actions have raised interest rates on savings, launched a bond drive, and even sold ''shares'' in industry. Just how much participation is voluntary or is done under pressure is unclear to Westerners.
Before the Chinese Cultural Revolution in the 1960s, the government benefited greatly from a more dedicated population, voluntarily working long and hard in a determined effort to improve conditions. Much of this has ceased. Those who enthusiastically worked then lament the cynical attitude that now prevails among the younger generation.
Extra cash does exist in many families these days, and it is not because it cannot be spent. Stores are filled both with shoppers and with overflowing shelves. Basic needs have generally been met and stylishness is beginning to replace need as a decisive force in the marketplace. Some families are deferring purchases until quality or style improves, but the delayed purchases are for color television sets, washing machines, refrigerators, and the like.
Recent reports have stressed the rise in both rural and urban savings deposits. One report from Peking showed an average saving of $170 (or 305 yuan in the Chinese currency) per capita as of December. An article from Economic Information cited in the China Daily listed China's urban and rural savings at $ 19.7 billion in 1981, almost double the $11.1 billion figure in 1978, when the new economic program began. The report contrasted with a $12.8 billion increase between 1949 and 1965 and a $3.9 billion rise between 1966 and '76.
The most unusual developments are reports of sales of shares in Shandong provincial industries, such as the silk factory. The sales smack more of bonds than stocks, but show an impatience to get new industry.
When a power plant needed funds to operate, local people offered to finance it themselves. About $60 million in ''shares'' were sold, but only to large concerns, communes and their subdivisions, county cooperative industries, and businesses established by local governments. According to the China Daily, the plant is expected to be in operation in 1984, with recovery of the investment in four to five years. In the interim, dividends are expected to be higher than would have been available from bank deposits.
The current government bond drive, for what some call a patriotic bond issue, is aimed primarily at tapping the savings of the rich and of high-level officials. The ''rich'' refers to former capitalists who were bought out in the conversion to socialism more than two decades ago. Although their savings accounts were confiscated by the Red Guards in the Cultural Revolution, many have been restored, with interest. Since conspicuous consumption, imports, or foreign travel are outlawed, these Chinese are considered to have little use for their capital.
In fact, reports surface periodically of heirs turning their inheritances over to the state. The most recent of these was the Dong family in Shanghai. Six sons gave their inheritances to the state to be used for the expansion of the textile industry in which their father had once been prominent.
The first bond drive came in the difficult years of 1960-62, when the Soviets broke with China, leaving many aid projects unfinished. That difficulty was compounded by several natural disasters. Funds were drastically needed.
The current new issue, available in denominations from 1 to 1,000 yuan, pays 8 percent interest for individuals after six years, but only 4 percent for work units that invest. One invests voluntarily, but for leaders of units, like managers or school principals, the need to set a good example is evident.
Most people have regular bank savings plans, of which there are four for native Chinese. The ordinary accounts yield 3.6 percent compound interest on amounts left for one year, but interest on untouched three- and five-year deposits has risen from 4.5 to 4.8 percent and 5.1 to 5.7 percent.
Fixed accounts, or certificates of deposits (CDs), corralled 80 percent of the total 1981 savings. The five-year rate has gone from 5.7 to 6.6 percent and the new eight-year rate is 7.5 percent, slightly under the bond. An unusual form of fixed saving is the accounT requiring a regular monthly deposit of a set amount. This also normerly paid at the standard one-, three-, and five-year levels, but now offers the second-best rate: 3.9, 5.1, and 6 percent for the same periods.
Mutual aid funds probably attract the largest number of savers in China. These are the Chinese equivalent of American credit unions. It is here that most people maintain their ''Christmas savings'' accounts. But in China, the lunar New Year is the big annual event and an excuse for a spending spree, now offhcially dubbed Spring Festival. Individuals may invest $1 to $2 a month, families perhaps $3 to $4. The sum pledged is collected monthly by one member of a working group and put into the Hu Zhu Hui (help-each-other group) savings account.
Hu Zhu Jin (help each other money) is not only a savings convenience for the heavy food and gift expense of New Year's, but it is available for lending. Should any emergency arise, a member of the Hui can borrow a small amount, say up to $17, with no questions asked and no interest required.