Rough Ride


汉语世界(The World of Chinese) 2020年6期

Sam Davies

The life cycle of bicycles from the reform period to the “share economy”.


AFlying Pigeon in every household!” Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping declared in the early 1990s, referring to ownership of Chinas famous bicycle brand as the height of aspiration for Chinese consumers, and the success of his economic policies.

Achieving such recognition had been a wild ride for the bicycle, which began in China as a curious foreign import shunned by the upper classes, then became a status symbol worth many months wages, and eventually a staple mode of transportation for commuters everywhere. And though Chinese consumers later fell in love with automobiles, the convenience and enjoyment of cycling appears to be making a comeback via the shared bicycles that litter city streets today.

At the beginning of the 20th century, the child emperor Puyi was so fond of cycling that he is said to have ordered the thresholds of the doors of the Forbidden City sawn away so that he and his siblings could ride around freely. His predecessor, the Guangxu Emperor, had been similarly intrigued by the Western contraption, though his first ride allegedly ended with his queue entangled in the rear wheel.

Bicycles first appeared in China in the 1860s, ridden by foreigners in the international concessions of cities like Shanghai and Beijing. Among Chinese, they were at first ridden only by the nobility, and rarely in public, as it was considered unseemly for those of high class to travel under their own steam—much more appropriate to be carried in a sedan chair or rickshaw.

But the upper classes, and then workers, increasingly embraced two-wheelers for their convenience. Bicycles were extremely expensive in the Maoist period due to price controls and the rationing system, costing one-third to one-half of an urban workers salary of 445 RMB per year, plus ration coupons. There were long waiting lists for purchase.

Owning a bike, though, was highly desirable. Along with a watch and a sewing machine, and occasionally a radio, a bicycle was one of the “old three items (老三件)” or “three rounds and one sound (三转一响)”—status symbols that males hoped to possess in order to marry. Du Juan, a woman from Beijing, had hoped to receive a bicycle on her wedding day in the 1980s, but her then fiancé failed to get his hands on one. “Our factory had over 1,000 people and just four or five [bicycle] coupons each year,” Du told Beijing News.

China came to be referred to as the “kingdom of bicycles” during the Maoist period, and the moniker would catch on once Chinas cities became a sea of two-wheelers in the 1980s and 90s. Reform and opening up brought the end of price controls and rationing for bicycles by 1986, making them accessible to the masses.

Consumers rushed to purchase bicycles for commuting, for errands, and for leisure. Advertisements for Phoenix, a Chinese bicycle brand, appealed to consumers with the slogan “independence begins with a Phoenix bicycle.” A Flying Pigeon bicycle was even gifted to US President George H. W. Bush when he visited China in February 1989.

From 1981 to 1987 the number of bicycles in China increased from 77 million to 225 million. In Beijing in 1990, there were 8.38 million bicycles to 270,655 road vehicles, and over 60 percent of all trips in the city were made by bike. In the 1980s, the Flying Pigeon factory, based in Tianjin, churned out 4 million bicycles a year and employed 10,000 people. Chinas overall annual bicycle production rocketed from 8.5 million at the start of reforms in 1978 to 41 million in 1987.

But the boom wouldnt last forever. With incomes rising, automobile sales rose, and the government began taking measures to support car producers and make cities more car-friendly, often at the expense of cyclists.

In 1995, a document from the Ministry of Housing and Urban-Rural Development called bicycles “road hogs” and “accident causers” that created conflict with other vehicles and should be controlled. Dalian, Liaoning province, declared itself a “bicycle free city” in 2000, Shanghai banned cycling on urban streets briefly in 2002, while other cities announced targets to reduce the percentage of trips taken by bike.

Chinas bike numbers peaked in 1996, with half a billion bicycles. The share of trips taken by bicycles on the road in Beijing declined from 54 percent in 1986 to 23 percent by 2007. Bike ownership dropped from 1.9 per household in 1995 to 1.1 in 2000. Bicycles came to be seen, just as they were by the upper classes of the Qing, as vehicles of the poor. The car became the new aspirational good—and new requirement for marriage.

The decline in reputation of the bicycle was cruelly exposed in 2010 on the popular dating show If You Are the One. A female contestant, faced with an insufficiently wealthy suitor, declared, “Id rather cry in a BMW than laugh on a bicycle.”

But as quickly as consumers and the government had turned their backs on bicycles, they made a comeback. Chinas biggest cities, recognizing the pollution and congestion caused by the boom in car ownership, began to put restrictions on car buying and driving—including a lottery system for granting license plates, and bans on cars with certain plate numbers from the roads on alternating days.

In 2017, Xiamen, Fujian province, opened the worlds longest elevated cycleway in an attempt to ease congestion and provide a more pleasant cycling experience; Beijing followed suit in 2019 with its own 6.5-kilometer elevated bicycle lane. In 2018, governor Yuan Jiajun announced that Zhejiang province will invest 20 billion RMB into creating 10,000 kilometers of cycle paths across the province.

Congestion and a rising obesity problem also convinced many citizens to search for a healthier and more convenient way to commute. Middle class urbanites who already had a house and car began to buy expensive bikes for leisure, taking trips into the countryside to escape the pressures of urban life.

In the past few years, the reinvigoration of biking in Chinese cities has been driven by the explosive growth of the shared bike industry. Ofo launched its bike-sharing business in 2014, with MoBike following the next year. By 2016, the bike-sharing industry had 209 million users, and saw revenues of 10.3 billion RMB. State media proclaimed shared bikes one of Chinas “New Four Great Inventions” along with high-speed rail, e-commerce, and mobile payment.

But the garish shared bikes quickly turned city streets and sidewalks into multi-colored impassable disaster zones strewn with abandoned bicycles. As riders used and abused their rides, and companies burned through cash trying to capture market share, mountains of broken-down bikes filled heaps of ever-mounting scrap in the outskirts of cities.

In response, many cities have restricted the number of shared bikes, begun fining companies for failing to manage the bicycles, and forced companies to repair, reuse, or dispose of broken bikes properly. These measures have brought some calm and stability to the shared bike market, which has coalesced around three main companies backed by internet firms Tencent and Alibaba, and ride-hailing app Didi.

Despite the popularity of shared bicycles, the proliferation of electric bikes and cars, and the expansion of subway and bus networks, mean that bicycles probably will never again have a monopoly over Chinese streets. But Dengs wish from long ago has been fulfilled, even exceeded, and the freedom provided by life on two wheels means the ride for Chinas bicycles isnt over yet.


时光不老 风华正茂
时光不老 风华正茂