A few weeks ago, we took a look at the 'work' of Ines Brunn, a German expat and trick-cyclist extraordinaire who has currently set up shop (literally) in Beijing. And while Prolly documented a fair share of gorgeous vintage steel in the People's Republic, it turns out Reuters TV beat him to the punch with this report from January of this year:
Ok, so the reporting is rather superficial—agency dude owns 30+ bikes; small-wheelers are setting up shop—but frankly any interest in cycling is good interest.1 While the automobile remains the status symbol par excellence in China, the purportedly growing appreciation of the bicycle is certainly a step in the right direction, and I must say I concur with Yu Yiqun's comment: "For people who don't understand bikes, they ask, 'Are you out of your mind?' You could buy a car for the price of this bike. But we just have different ways of looking at things."
Not that even a highly coveted Gios (or Colnago, Tommasini, etc.) will ever have the same cachet as a Ferrari or Maserati, but at least it's a far more practical way to navigate a city during rush hour.2 Case in point, this 2011 Streetfilms short on "The Biggest, Baddest Bike-Share in the World," in Hangzhou, China, which puts our almost-launched CitiBike to shame:
Even so, there's no denying the middle-class appeal of the car ownership: Vehicle sales nearly doubled between 2007 and 2010, when China surpassed Western Europe in the stats, and although recent numbers suggest resurgent growth in auto sales after a couple of relatively slow years—according to WSJ, "sales of passenger vehicles in China rose 5.4% and 6.9%, respectively, in 2011 and 2012"—others speculate that infrastructure may be the limiting factor for growth. A research report from January of this year suggests that:Worsening traffic congestion is likely to spur more Chinese cities to introduce policies that may hit car sales but generate additional revenue for local governments... analysts said car sales in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Guiyang have declined by 30% to 50% after those cities had earlier applied restrictions on purchases of private vehicles. Still, they remain optimistic on the auto industry, "if only because of growing consumer purchasing power and the low penetration of private vehicle ownership."
The report cites number plate auctions as the source of revenue; according to the Financial Times, "license plate rationing has driven prices up to the point where a Shanghai plate costs nearly three times as much as a cheap Chinese car." When I saw my second cousin in Beijing, he remarked there are over a million names on the waiting list, and the Washington Post notes that "Beijing offers 20,000 plates a month by lottery, but some residents complain it is easier to win a fortune in the Chinese state lottery than to win the plate lottery."
Moreover, the disproportionately pricey plates actually incentivize more expensive autos in a curious feedback loop:The policy also inadvertently penalizes local brands, [Bill Russo, former head of Chrysler in China] said: "When Chinese consumers have to spend that kind of money to put a car on the road, they tend to buy one that has more value than the registration plate. This does not favor domestic carmakers, who tend to offer low-priced cars."
Image credit to Associated Press / Color China, via WSJ
Conversely, the domestic bicycle industry seems to be thriving: from no-name knockoffs to high-end carbon frames (and, lest we forget, aluminum rims), China is still largely unrivaled when it comes to inexpensive manufacturing capacity and capability. Although imported frames and components convey status in China (as elsewhere), Prolly noted that "cheap 'rainbow fixies'" are increasingly popular, and more savvy operations like Shanghai's Factory Five bring an element of design (and QA) to their domestically-produced frames.3
It ain't handbuilt in Brooklyn, but considering that other companies probably sell the same bicycles in the other hemisphere for upwards of twice as much, I think they're doing a good job in a country where the limiting factor for cycling isn't the Chinese equivalent of the DMV but its AQI. The borderline toxic air pollution is such a deterrent that at least one Beijing-based DIYer has seen fit to risk electrocution for a breath of fresh air.
Between the high-end bicycles trickling into the mainland and its unique cycling culture, it's not so much a case of "Made in China" as it is "Made for China."