China is planning to reallocate almost half of its massive rural work force in the next 20 years, according to a senior Chinese agriculture official. ''In the futureD we plan to shift 30 to 40 percent of our agricultural laborers into manufacturing, service industries, and develop small towns,'' said Du Runsheng, director of rural policy research centers for both the Chinese Communist Party and the State Council.
This shift, he said, is meant to relieve the current surplus of agricultural labor. ''We want to release the number of laborers engaged in field work and move them into small industries,'' he said.
At present, more than 320 million of China's total work force of 447 million are involved in agricultural work. But the move to reallocate 40 percent of the rural workers is likely to affect more than 500 million people by the end of the century.
Although no Chinese offical today is likely to make the comparison, the plan to shift a slab of rural workers from agricultural to industrial work brings to mind Mao Tse-tung's call to the peasant cooperatives in 1958 to produce their own steel as part of the Great Leap Forward.
The ''let the whole people make iron and steel'' campaign lasted more than a year. It left most of China's villages empty, as all but the elderly and infirm rushed to set up complete production unit4- h each commune doing everything itself, from mining to smelting.
Although the communes were eventually organized into more specialized tasks, the movement failed. The inconsistent and poor quality of the iron and steel they produced rendered much of it useless for most tasks.
China's economic and social planners have gained a greater degree of sophistication since the euphoric Great Leap Forward. The development of small towns based on low technology is being promoted as a practical solution to the serious surplus of labor in China's rural economy.
''Surplus labor has become a serious issue, especially after the implementation of the responsibility system,'' Mr. Du said.
The ''responsibility'' system, introduced gradually since 1979, links Chinese peasants' incomes to their productivity. It has led to consecutive bumper harvests and a rise in overall agricultural production.
But the massive growth in China's population and a reduction of the amount of land under cultivation have brought the per-capita figure of cultivated land down to one-tenth of a hectare (2.5 acres). This has caused the current surplus of rural labor, which was for sears Hisguised by the collective system of farming.
Mr. Du said that China hoped the development of small rural towns based on low-technology industry would create jobs and improve living standards.
''We have devised this policy of integrated rural development to expand jobs, improve incomes, raise education levels, and develop rural areas,'' he said. ''And we hope it can be accomplished within 20 years.''
China is aiming for a per-capita income of $800 by the year 2000. Mr. Du said that already more than 43 percent of China's peasants are earning over 300 yuan (about $150) a year, compared with 2.7 percent in 1978. The rural per-capita income is now around 200 yuan a year.
''Our government has a policy that some people will get rich first and then they will help the other part of the people get rich also,'' Du said. ''Our final purpose is for the people to be rich.''
The responsibility system has seen a rise in sideline production by rural workers, accounting for output worth more than 85 billion yuan last year.
In January, the Central Committee of the Chinese Communist Party issued a document stressing the need for urgent reform of the rural ecofomy. The document , believed to have been circulated to most rural areas, said peasants should be encouraged to invest in businesses and pool their money to start new enterprises.
''These policies will provide a surplus of manpower for forestry, animal husbandry, fishing, and other sideline production as well as industry, commerce, and transport,'' an editorial in the official English-language newspaper, China Daily, said.
Since 1980, the government has called for the development of ''small towns.'' The surplus labor would likely be chaneled into these settlements.
However, the cost of the new infrastructure and housing in these centers will pose a serious strain on China's resources in the next 20 years. And moving these people from villages, where they can literally feed themselves by dipping a hand into the grain sack, into towns, where supplies must be transported and distributed to them, will place further strains on the system.
But China's planners seem to have little choice. The other option is to leave the 500 million alone, further deplete the amount of land available for cultivation - and face the social consequences of massive unemploy-ent or underemployment.
The advantage of shifting this slice of rural population is twofold: increasing the efficiency of China's agriculture and further developing Chinese industry. It is the leadership's aim to double both agricultural and industrial output by the end of the century.
Du said that under the policy of integrated development in rural areas, ''We want to increase the concentration of land to about 30 to 40 percent of households, which can then engage in specialist production. In this way, skilled farmers can be allocated more land, which should also help to increase crop yields.''
China's rural population now accounts for more than 80 percent of the country's total inhabitants.
Du said the transfer of land contracts between farmers could also be approved by local collectives. The hiring of up to seven workers would also be allowed.