Members of what was one of Mao Tse-tung's model communes, the proud peasants who farm this Yellow River valley still cling to his radical agricultural policies that brought ruin to much of China's countryside but prosperity here.

At Qiliyin Commune in this central China farm region, where Mao launched his utopian commune movement 24 years ago, there is passive resistance to reforms from Peking that seek to devolve decision-making powers from collective leadership to the family and even the individual.

"Family farming won't work here," said Shi Shilan, leader of Qiliyin's richest brigade, whose 200 households farm the land collectively and divide equally everything from housing space to popsicles.

"Everyone will continue to eat out of one big pot of rice," added commune boss Du Ximeng, reciting the famous Maoist slogan for egalitarianism that now is derided by Peking's pragmatic leaders.

The story of Qiliyin is seldom heard these days as Peking propagates a new rural strategy and trumpets its early successes. More than 90 percent of China's countryside now practices some sort of "economic responsibility system" that Peking hopes will spur production by giving more power to the peasants.

Though a small minority, the dissenting voices at Qiliyin and other wealthy communes who view the new reforms as unfeasible or a retreat from socialism are seen as potential pockets of resistance that could complicate efforts to reorganize China's 800 million peasants.

Signs of opposition have been spotted along country roads in the form of slogans scrawled on buildings. "The people's commune is good," says one. Another reads, "The collective economy is the lifeline of the peasants."

Mao's radical slogans still are displayed around the commune and pictures of the late, revered chairman still beam down from communal buildings.

Mao made Qiliyin famous when he came to the northern Henan Province area three days after it communized 40,000 peasants in August 1958. Standing in a cotton field among thousands of farmers, he reportedly said, "The cotton is growing well. People's communes are a good thing."

That benediction spread like a prairie fire, inspiring wholesale collectivization of China's countryside. By the end of 1958, virtually all of China's half-billion peasants had been forced into communes, which Mao hailed as the bridge to a perfect communist society.

Communes like Qiliyin collectivized all private farm animals and tools, set up communal mess halls to feed 40 families at a time and built crude furnaces to produce their own steel. All power rested with a handful of communal overlords who set production quotas and divided the spoils along classic Marxist lines on the basis of need, not work.

When administrative turmoil and natural disaster caused famine in 1960, Mao temporarily was discredited. New orders came down from then head of state Liu Shaoqi that served as the forerunner of today's reforms. Communal control was relaxed. Small plots were given back to families. Free markets were reopened and material incentives were stressed instead of egalitarianism.

But Mao's followers at Qiliyin Commune held fast to his principles, rejecting orders to set up family farms and criticizing private plots and free markets as "revisionist," a smear on socialism.

When Mao staged his comeback and orchestrated the Cultural Revolution of the mid-1960s, Qiliyin officials branded Liu as "China's Khrushchev" because of his rural policies. They also attacked Deng Xiaoping, then Communist Party secretary general, as "the second leading person in authority taking the capitalist road."

Now Deng is back in power as China's principal Communist leader and a strong advocate of dismantling Mao's experiment, which he had criticized in the 1950s as a rash, disruptive move to "reach heaven in one step."

Last January, he told a group of visiting Yugoslav journalists that "we want to change the commune system completely."

Experiments have begun in several provinces to transfer the communes' administrative and political powers to elected township governments, while farm cooperatives grouped around several families have been set up to handle the communes' work, as they did before communization.

But Deng's strongest weapon is the establishment of family farms. Instead of merely following orders of commune bosses, peasants now sign contracts promising to produce so much for the state, commune and village. Once they meet the quota, they are free to keep whatever remains for their own consumption or for sale at a free market.

Last year, private plots were expanded to a maximum of 15 percent of every commune's productive land.

Qiliyin officials carefully avoid criticism of the powerful Deng or his reforms, saying only that private plots and family farming are unsuitable in a commune with high production and a significant level of mechanization that would be wasted were the land divided into small plots.

Commune leader Du Ximeng acknowledged in an interview that some peasants initially "saw this as a step backward," but finally agreed among themselves to adopt a policy of keeping "three things unchanged and five things steady"--which amounts to preserving the commune structure as it was in Mao's time.

"We feel the present system suits our situation," said Du.

Past denunciations of Liu and Deng now are written off as outgrowths of "extreme leftism," although Du conceded that no one has been deposed at Qiliyin since the Cultural Revolution ended in 1976.

Some Chinese peasants weaned on Maoism worry that the new system of handing out communal land to families and individuals will reverse the 1952 communist land reform that abolished private ownership of land and did away with landlords.

But political views are less salient than economic arguments made by commune officials who point out the big payoffs of communization, such as irrigation projects, land leveling and construction of brigade factories to produce farm implements and repair trucks.

What you hear at Qiliyin is that it is hard to argue with success.

Since the Communist takeover in 1949 when the peasants inherited an infertile plain soured by the salty overflow of the Yellow River just north of them, grain production has grown almost tenfold and cotton production nearly 20-fold.

Average per capita income for the commune's 61,000 residents reached the equivalent of $140 last year-- more than three times the national average in the countryside. Peasants have moved from mud houses to brick buildings with one television set for every 25 families.

From a dry, primitively farmed area with one tractor, Qiliyin has acquired in the past 30 years more than 100 large irrigation ditches and mechanical assistance ranging from 290 tractors to combine harvesters and sowing machines.

Even the tiny plots set aside for private farming at Qiliyin have been collectivized with production equitably distributed among peasant families.

Asked about the impact of new reforms at Qiliyin, brigade leader Shi Shilan read from a piece of paper, saying in effect that nothing much has changed since 1958 except that part of the commune's current production is allocated according to productivity instead of egalitarianism.

"We have a higher system of economic responsibility here," said Shi. "It has made us quite wealthy."