FARMERS in the rural part of Wuxi prefer working in factories to labouring on the farm. So many farmers have switched from agriculture to industrial jobs that the output of the rural industrial sector has outstripped that of the state sector, accounting for four-fifths of the city's output. Industrial output, in turn, represented roughly three-fifths of Wuxi's gross domestic output, of 60 billion yuan (about HK$55 billion) last year - the sixth largest in China. Sprawling through the suburbs are the so-called '100 million yuan villages' - communities whose industrial output reaches 100 million yuan. Although not an absolute benchmark for wealth, the villages serve as an indicator of affluence by Wuxi standards. Colour television sets and mobile telephones are just not enough for Wuxi rural residents to reflect their affluence. They prefer to build villas instead. Huaxi village, for instance, in Jiangyin county, has been hailed as China's first rural area with air-conditioners and cars, and has been seen as 'the hope for the nation's peasants'. Two of Wuxi's three counties rank first and second among China's counties in economic data. Wuxi county ranks first and Jiangyin second. Jiang Xian, the propaganda chief of Jiangyin county, said most rural residents in Jiangyin earned more than 1,000 yuan a month. This compared with the monthly average of 620 yuan for the city of 4.26 million. Wuxi is the focal point of the Yangtze River delta which grew to be an area of busy trading activity during the 1930s and continued to thrive until the communists seized power in 1949. 'Wuxi used to be an active commodity market and used to respond to market conditions,' Mr Jiang said. 'It is the actual birthplace of China's rural industrial tradition.' Enabling rural enterprises to prosper in Wuxi are the high flexibility they enjoy and the exemption from government planning from which they benefit. Today, the accumulation of wealth in Wuxi is attributed to the rapid spread of rural enterprises and the increasing number of farmers joining the ranks of industrialists. The number of rural enterprises in Wuxi has soared to 15,000, surpassing the 240 state enterprises and outnumbering the 3,800 Sino-foreign joint ventures. Each enterprise normally starts with a small capital base and its assets regularly grow to hundreds of millions of yuan. Jiangsu Shuangliang Group Corp is an example. The maker of bromium lithium cooling systems for use in central air-conditioning and cooling systems at factories and airports began with 9,000 yuan 10 years ago and now has assets worth more than 300 million yuan. Bromium lithium is a coolant that is more environmentally friendly than chlorofluorocarbons which eat into the Earth's ozone layer. From a complement of six people, the machinery maker has now expanded to a workforce of 1,200 on a small-scale industrial estate comprising 15 factory premises, each measuring more than 107,600 square feet. Company vice-president Miao Minda said: 'We want to be rich - we have been poor for so long. 'Some people just didn't believe we could make quality products. They thought rural enterprises wouldn't have the experience and techniques to match state enterprises. 'The reason we succeed is simple: we don't have subsidies from the Government so we have to turn out excellent products in order to market them.' The company has captured 67 per cent of the share in the market for bromium lithium coolant machinery systems and last year's sales turnover was 350 million yuan. Now it has been approached by an unspecified foreign conglomerate for an equity stake in the company, paving the way for participation in the international market. 'Ten years ago we didn't even dream of business on the scale we've achieved now,' Mr Miao said. Tang Jieming, general manager of Wuxi Werys Bicycle Co, said he started the company for the price of a pig, as with most rural entrepreneurs. 'We began with 100 yuan of capital, which would just buy a pig,' he said. The bike manufacturer posted sales of 210 million yuan last year and is diversifying, with plans to make 50,000 mopeds this year. The flourishing rural industrial sector has meant lower priority has been given to agricultural development, which causes anxiety to China's planners. But Mr Jiang said fewer farmers employed in agriculture did not necessarily mean a drop in agricultural output and that machinery produced by the rural sector could boost farming efficiency. He said 60 per cent of agricultural output had been achieved through the introduction of machinery.