In slack agricultural seasons tractor-drawn carts chug into China's cities heaped with bedrolls, wash basins, thermos jugs, eating bowls, and chopsticks - all the necessities - for the half dozen men and women aboard, farmers temporarily assigned to work on building projects.
The construction going on in the People's Republic of China is extensive, perhaps too extensive.
Reports from Peking speak of curtailing capital construction while, in late spring, an edict banned urban sprawl in an effort to conserve dwindling farmland. Be that as it may, throughout 1980 and 1981, offices and factories were rising all across the land while in city after city, block after block of apartment buildings were in various stages of completion.
Some existing housing units sprouted new floors - up instead of out. Most new buildings are 40- to 48-unit blocks of 5 or 6 floors; others rise as high as 10 and 14 stories. Many are individual, supplementary blocks, but some are entirely new massive projects.
One of the older developments, not far from Tian An Men Square in Peking, has 29 high-rises which house 9,000 families, many of whom must have been displaced when the huge square and wide main streets were created.
Another large project in Changsha, capital of Mao Tse-tung's home province of Hunan, has 60 smaller buildings housing 2,160 families who ''formerly lived in bamboo and wood huts.'' In the 32 years of Communist rule, 3,000 major construction projects have reportedly been completed.
Despite these efforts, mainland China still has an acute housing crisis.
Dedicated to improving conditions for the masses, the government early attempted to house the urban homeless and eliminate rural shanties ''through whose roofs we could see the stars,'' as peasant children recall.
Initially temples, monasteries, churches, and second homes were turned into housing for offices, schools, even factories. Existing homes and apartments became multiple dwellings. This played havoc with the lives of many middle- and upper-class Chinese who suddenly found their six- and seven-room quarters shared with three or four other families, each, thereafter, with one or two rooms.
Shanghai's mansions today are mute testimony to this conversion process, but the homeless had been housed.
The building of large-scale projects began in 1953. Forty million urban families have been accommodated since then, according to government statistics. While 9.1 percent of total capital construction went into housing during the 1950s, this investment dropped as low as 4 percent during the Cultural Revolution (1966-76).
When a 1977 survey of 192 cities revealed an average 3.6 square meters of space per person (38.88 square feet or about 6x6.5 feet.), it undoubtedly sparked a resurgence in construction.
The continued shortfall in housing is laid to the doubling of the urban population between 1949 and 1978, largely as a result of unrestricted births, since migration of rural poor has been restricted. The crowding resulting from this burgeoning of city numbers is screaming testimony to a need for planned parenthood, long denied in China but now being pushed.
In 1978 the funds devoted to housing contruction rose from the 6.9 percent of the year before to 7.8 percent and climbed to 10 percent of capital construction in 1979. Some 120 million square meters were built in three years, 56 million - considered sufficient for 4 million families - in 1979 alone and a record year.
Sufficiency is relative. These figures work out to 14 square meters per family. That might be a room 10 by 15 feet (home to a friend, his wife, and two sons, 9 and 14), but more likely it is two rooms about 8 by 8 feet in size with some minor areas attached.
Families are considered to average five members; this is still about 30 square feet per person.
Building funds are allocated by the government to factories, schools, and other places of work. These ''units'' are responsible for building for their own employees. Work units are also encouraged to devote a portion of their own funds to new or improved housing. This is easy for a factory or commune, less so for a university which generates few profits.
The old (i.e., already established) universities have been active builders. Some foreign teachers have seen up to 400 apartments built in 18 months at one school alone. Even so, new universities reportedly have more extensive facilities; that is, the number of apartments corresponds better to the size of the work force, all done as a new package.
The city administration is another work unit, building for its own employees but also building for ''the people.'' These are shop assistants and the like, workers without major employers who would normally provide accommodations within their own grounds.
Designs are fairly standard, probably as much the result of few architects as central planning. City building companies supervise the construction, providing plans, engineers, and skilled workmen.
The company contracts with the work unit (factory, school, etc.) to erect the structures needed.