China's peasants can afford bicycles, but can't find many

''Please bring me a sewing machine on your next trip home from Peking,'' wrote a villager in Shanxi Province to a relative in the capital city.

Most city dwellers with rural relatives have received similar letters repeatedly. The new system of economic incentives promoted by China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping and his associates has brought increasing prosperity to the countryside.

The only problem is that peasants have little to buy with the money they earn from their private plots and their sideline occupations.

Too much money chasing too few goods - this is the classic recipe for inflation.

''I have 3,000 yuan ($2,000) in the bank, but I can't buy a television set, because it simply isn't available in my local store,'' a peasant just outside Peking complained to a recent visitor.

A government directive announced June 22 that it is trying to tackle the problem by reorganizing the distribution system so as to favor the flow of consumer goods to the countryside.

Until now, China's city dwellers have been favored over the rural population in terms of availability of consumer goods as well as of schooling, jobs, hospitals, and cultural benefits.

This situation cannot be changed quickly, but since four-fifths of China's 1 billion people live in the countryside, the government is aware that more must be done to meet rural needs before they reach explosive proportions.

The directive announced June 22 says state-owned wholesale companies must take overall responsibility for the distribution of their goods throughout the nation. Communes, production brigades, and production teams, it says,should be encouraged to set up more retail outlets, and wholesalers should open up their warehouses to public inspection to prove they are not holding back goods in short supply.

Government departments should take steps to see that cement, steel products, glass, and other items needed for rural housing get to customers in the countryside, the directive says. Pursuant to this directive, the Ministry of Commerce, which is responsible for the distribution of most consumer goods in China, has compiled a list of 15 items that should be supplied to the countryside on a priority basis.

The list gives a good indication of the kind of things peasants want and often have difficulty buying. First come bicycles, then sewing machines, followed by wristwatches, matches, soap, iron pots, rice bowls, cotton cloth, polyester fabric, knitting wool, kerosene, iron wire, nails, sugar. Finally ''third-class or lower than third-class cigarettes.''

In the case of wristwatches, using 1980 figures as a base, 80 percent of the increase in this year's figure for wholesale distribution should go to the countryside. (Actual production figures are not given, but 1980 production was 22.16 million wristwatches. Last year's production increased by 29.6 percent.)

The peak sales period in the countryside comes after the fall harvest. The government directive says distribution channels from the city to the countryside must be improved before the end of September and asks the departments concerned to report the specific steps they have taken by that date.

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