A century after hundreds of thousands of coolie laborers were sent abroad in what the Chinese later called ruthless exploitation, Peking is exploring quietly the idea of again making money from its huge supply of cheap labor.

Contracts have been signed in recent months with French and Italian interests for use of Chinese workers in construction projects overseas. The vaguely worded agreements make no reference to the Chinese railroad and mine workers who flooded America 100 years ago but foreign businessmen say the Chinese this time are insisting on proper working conditions and limited two-year tours of duty.

Documents reported by a Hong Kong journal say that "from several hundreds to several tens of thousands" of workers are being offered by one Chinese province alone, although no workers have yet been dispatched under any of the contracts. That province, Guangdong, supplied most of the 19th century laborers whose descendents now make up the majority of Americans of Chinese ancestry.

The Chinese have not given much publicity to their negotiations to sell labor in other countries, but are known to view with envy the hard currency earned by South Korean laborers abroad.

Chinese sources here say rumors of plans to send workers abroad have drawn a popular response. On a recent wallposter here, the writer claimed to have polled candidates in a Peking city election and found a majority in favor of the idea. "At present the population China has reached almost 1 billion," the poster said. "Many young people are jobless. . .Why can't we export workers? An emigration policy also should be adopted so that all those who want to move abroad and earn a living there can do so of their own will. By these two actions, foreign currency can be earned and the burden of overpopulation eased . . ." A Hong Kong Chinese-language magazine with some ties to Peking predicted that 1 million workers would be sent abroad and would earn $2.5 billion a year in foreign exchange, but businessmen and diplomats here doubt such estimates. Some foreign companies have told the Chinese they cannot use as many laborers as they have been offered or that they are not cheap enough. When Tianjin officials offered 650 workers to Japan's Kawasaki Heavy Industry Co. to build a cement factory in Iran, the Chinese said they preferred to hire smaller groups.

The independent Hong Kong journal The Far Eastern Economic Review has reported that one Chinese company, the Guangdong Manpower Service Corp., is offering teams of about 300 workers each with cooks, a barber and an interpreter. Documents made available to the journal say prospective employers are assured the Chinese would be "dilligent and obedient to the employer's reasonable as well as abiding by the law in the place of work." Suggested salaries for unskilled and skilled workers, ages 18 to 35, vary from $300 to $450 a month.

A significant development here is a study now being carried out in Taishan county, the area of Guangdong from where most ancestors of Chinese Americans came. The Chinese government, though Canton's Zhongshan University, is helping to pay for the research project with sociologists from the University of California at Los Angeles. They are examining the effect of the 19th-century workers exodus on life in China before the communist takeover. An academic study of such a ticklish social issue would have been unthinkable here a decade ago.

Henry Lam, chairman of Chronicle Lam and Sons of Hong Kong, told The Far Eastern Economic Review that one of his firms, Chronicle Consultants, has been retained by the Guangdong company to negotiate labor deals overseas. He told the Review, "our main target areas are Iran, Kuwait, Libya and the United Arab Emirates."

"Many people are already very keen to sign up," Lam said. He said the plan was to draw migrant workers from rural areas of China, and to guarantee them a permanent city job upon their return. This is an enormous incentive to Chinese peasants, who long for the steady hours and pensions guaranteed urban workers in China.

The Guangdong teams would work eight hours a day, six days a week, with only one holiday a year -- the traditional Lunar New Year, when Chinese get four or five days off. Workers on the job would receive the average wage paid Chinese construction crews in China -- only about 10 percent of the $300 to $450 being charged their foreign employers -- but they would receive another 10 percent in foreign currency to buy goods to take back home. The rest of the money would go to the Chinese company, thus supplying significant amount of the foreign exchange China needs to finance modernization of its own industrial plants.