China's top leaders have taken an ax to layers of bureaucracy in commerce and economic policy - a move that's made a noticeable impact on business in the province of Liaoning.

Sales of grain, textiles and machinery are booming this year as the province hastens to meet export orders.Located in northeast China, Liaoning is one of the nation's leading manufacturers of industrial goods. Its major export markets are the United States, Europe, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong and Macao.

During 1987, Liaoning ranked third in China for export earnings at US$3.8 billion, after southern Guangdong ($5.5 billion) and the city of Shanghai ($4.2 billion).

In January, the latest figures available, Liaoning earned $153 million for exports of grain, non-petroleum chemicals, textiles, animal husbandry goods and machinery, up from $97 million for the same products in January 1987.

However, falling prices for such items as oil led to an overall drop in the province's trade for the first month of this year, local officials say.

For instance, we earned US$264 million from selling petroleum in January 1986, but only $174 million in January of this year, comments one government official.

The figure for total trade dropped to $354 million from $391 million in the corresponding period of last year.

Despite such vagaries, Liaoning achieved its $1 billion export quota set by the central government for 1987 three months ahead of schedule.

Like most Chinese government leaders, Wang Yongduo, deputy director of Liaoning's foreign economic relations and trade commission, is fond of reciting statistics to support his claims.

The province, he declares, exports 1,000 types of products in 23 categories to 130 countries and regions. In 1986, these brought in $1.2 billion.

Many Liaoning companies no longer have to rely on government-owned trading houses to conduct foreign trade. Until four years ago, Liaoning's trade was monopolized by eight local trading houses; today, there are 80.

Under a new reform drive in the management of overseas trade, large industrial enterprises can see to their own affairs with foreign businesses.

Last month authorities announced that four machinery factories were empowered to engage in direct commerce with Western firms. They are the Shenyang Heavy Machinery Plant, Sino-Czechoslovakia Friendship Factory, Shenyang No. 1 Machine Tool Plant and Shenyang Mining Machinery Plant.

Representing the backbone of Liaoning's heavy industry, the factories have fixed assets totaling some 710 million yuan ($197 million). They earned 24.5 million yuan through exports last year.

Reforms have provided an opportunity for (factory directors) to display our talents, says Zhao Feng, in charge of Northeast General Pharmaceuticals Factory.

It organized 20 employees into a separate import/export company last year and set up a trade outlet in Hamburg, West Germany, a major international medicinal distribution center.

The factory was able to double exports last year to $30 million, officials say.

Gong Zhenyi of Liaoyang Chemical Fiber Co. supports greater autonomy for handling foreign trade.

Since we have been able to make contact directly with customers abroad by telex, we have speeded up our trade transactions, says Mr. Gong.

Another success story pointed to by local people is Shenyang Bicycle Factory.

Soon after it began exporting last year, it sold nearly 10,000 bikes in the United States. The factory received orders last year to ship at least 350,000 bicycles to the United States, West Germany and Japan.

Provincial authorities are taking measures to better Liaoning's infrastructure in hopes of increasing trade.

During the last five years, the local government has invested 920 million yuan to improve roads and highways.

Previously, the backward network of highways was a bottleneck for industry, but last year we added 1,100 miles of highway to make a new-highway total of 23,000 miles, notes a communications official.

Plans are in the works to invest 1.7 billion yuan to construct a 230-mile expressway. Vehicles will be able to travel at 70 mph once the project is finished in 1990.

On the maritime side, Yingkou port at Bayuguan was closed to foreign ships each winter for 120 years until a recent construction project enabled the port to operate year-round.

In mid-March, the Shenyang branch of the government's combination airline, airport and regulatory aviation agency CAAC - the Civil Aviation Administration of China - opened two air routes benefiting Liaoning.

One links Shenyang with Fuzhou in southeastern Fujian with a twice-weekly service. The other is between Shenyang and the port city of Xiamen (Amoy), also in Fujian, which is one of China's four special economic zones. That flight operates once a week.