The average worker in the best-run factories here long ago achieved his ambition of obtaining the once much desired "three rounds and a sound" -- a bicycle, watch, sewing machine and transistor radio.
His new goal is to secure a color television set, a combination radio-cassette player and a refrigerator. A refrigerator is still out of reach for most workers. But many find they can now afford the first two items.
Wang Guoqing, a relatively well-paid section chief at the Xingang shipyard near here, was ticking off his most prized material possessions in answer to questions from a foreign reporter.
"But what about a refrigerator?" he was asked, concerning the only item that still seemed to elude him.
"I'll be getting one soon," he replied, looking as though he had let everyone down by not yet obtaining that one possession.
During a two-day visit to Wang's shipyard and to a plastics factory here in this industrial port 80 miles southeast of Peking, it was difficult to find much evidence of the once all-pervasive Communist ideology. The ideas, words, and image of the late chairman Mao Tse-tung were nowhere to be seen.
Instead, the emphasis is on increasing efficiency and giving bonuses to those who produce. Gone is "egalitarianism," the old creed whereby everyone shared more or less equally, regardless of his or her contribution, in what was called "the big rice pot."
In factories where the current economic reforms are working, the key elements seem to be material incentives and the introduction of higher technology as well as better educated factory managers who know how to use that technology.
China's third largest city, Tianjin, considers itself in the forefront of the reforms. It has an activist mayor, Li Ruihuan, who directed the building of thousands of new housing units, desperately needed after an earthquake devastated the city in 1976.
Li has helped modernize the port, and has brightened this drab industrial city of 7.8 million with the construction of new parks and gardens.
A foreign visitor to Tianjin, formerly known as Tientsin, is certain to be shown the model factories. But even a guided tour reveals some of the city's problems, and most of them are not unique to Tianjin.
Officials admit, for example, that while its ports have grown substantially in recent years, the city's textile and light industrial products still suffer from a lack of variety, poor quality and packaging, and slow delivery compared to those produced by competitors in Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea.
Another common problem is the glut of workers in factories. Even at the Xingang shipyard, 30 miles east of the city, considered to be among the best managed industrial operations in the country, shipyard managers admit to a problem of surplus labor.
The shipyard employs about 6,350 workers, but its general manager, Wang Yezhen, said he could accomplish more if he could reduce the staff to 4,000 or even 2,000 and then triple the salaries of the remaining workers. But General manager Wang, an engineer, said there is nothing he can do. Firing a worker would be the same as "doing violence to him," he said. So far, he has fired only two workers, and then, only because they had committed criminal acts, including rape.
"I have neither the heart nor the power to fire 4,000 workers," said Wang.
The average worker at the shipyard earns 110 yuan, or about $39 a month. But he can increase his income by 20 percent or more through bonuses. The average worker in a Japanese shipyard earns about 18 times as much, about $714 a month, according to Wang.
"I can't ask my workers to work as hard as Japanese workers," he said. "I ask them to work hard for 5 1/2-hours a day and take it easy for the rest. But if each of our workers could earn 300 yuan a month about $107 , we could compete with foreign workers anywhere," he said.
Wang is nonetheless proud of what his workers accomplish. They will be building five ships this year, two of them in the 20,000-ton class. In the past, he said, the shipyard had a work plan but no one followed through to make sure it was implemented.
Managers in each of the shipyard workshops are now college graduates, he said. Wang also said he had put an end to nepotism, and applicants must pass an examination before entering the work force.
It is difficult for an outsider to determine how much it helps a worker to belong to the Chinese Communist Party, but membership does not appear to be as important as it once was. Wang said he joined the party only a few years ago and that it had not damaged his career not to belong. He said the chief of the largest workshop at the shipyard was not a Communist Party member.
Under the reforms, Communist Party committees in factories are supposed to stay out of day-to-day administration and production and involve themselves only in overall policy-making. Wang said the role of the party committee at the shipyard was similar to that of a board of directors in a capitalist country.
When told that Karl Marx might have been surprised to hear a Communist speak in such a way of a party committee, Wang said, "Marx would be happy. This board of directors represents the interests of the workers and not the interests of capitalists.
"The day will come when factories in socialist countries are no less well managed than factories in capitalist countries," he said.
Jiang Tao, an electrical engineer and deputy secretary of the Communist Party committee at the shipyard, said membership in the party meant little more than belonging to the Republican or Democratic parties in the United States. More than 700 workers out of the total force of 6,350, or about 11 percent, belong to the party, he said.
Slogans posted at the shipyard are not ideological. At the No. 24 plastics factory in Tianjin, where slogans earlier might have exhorted workers to uphold "class struggle" or "raise high the banner of Mao Tse-tung thought," they now stress safety, production and quality.
The plastics factory, obviously one of the best-run enterprises here, exemplifies the proper use of new foreign technology. Its 1,150 workers -- more than 700 of them women -- produce plastic shopping bags and bags used to pack food and building materials, such as cement and lime. With the effective use of imported machinery from Austria, the factory manager, Lu Xin, said his factory produces bags that are superior to those produced by competitors in Taiwan, Hong Kong and South Korea.
Lu said that as a result of recent economic reforms, his factory had profited from a greater freedom to make its own decisions. In consultation with city authorities, the factory's managers made the key decisions on imported machinery and then made sure the factory workers installed it themselves.
"We used to have to ask specialized teams to come in and install new machinery," the factory manager said. "It could take five months and cost us more than $100,000 . . . . This time we were able to install it ourselves in six weeks time at a cost of only $7,000."
China's goal is to quadruple total industrial and agricultural production by the end of this century. Lu said his factory hoped to go beyond a quadrupling of production by that time.
As he put it, "We have only one aim now -- to make the country rich."