Motorcycling in China

September 12, 2006
By Brian Korfhage

China has taken dramatic steps forward in recent decades and our former Managing Editor took note of the role motorcycles play in Chinese society.
China has taken dramatic steps forward in recent decades and our former Managing Editor took note of the role motorcycles play in Chinese society.

Part-time moto-journalist and full-time graduate student, Brian Korfhage, recently embarked upon a 21-day business seminar through the People’s Republic of China, the final step to earning his MBA. On the trip, the class was supposed to be viewing the economic-juggernaut from a business perspective. However, Korf, with high-octane fuel coursing through his veins, saw some aspects of China that the normal MBA student wouldn’t normally notice. In this editorial, he gives us a bird’s eye view of motorcycling in China.

As a motorcycle enthusiast I find myself viewing the world at large through a different paradigm than most. Never was that more clear than on a recent trip to China. While many in my MBA class were hell bent on seeing a rapidly developing modern infrastructure juxtaposed by extreme poverty and its relationship to business, and more importantly, economic growth, I tend to be a little less savvy. Me? I was really interested in the motorcycle scene. I had no idea what to expect from China and its passion for motorcycles. I’m not sure what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t what I saw.

Over the past 20 years, China has undergone a tremendous amount of change. For decades bicycles were the transportation of choice. However, with rapid economic expansion, its citizens (granted, just some, but that’s another editorial) have enjoyed an increase in standard of living. Having had the fortune of visiting a multitude of highly populated cities in Europe, I was aware of the scooter phenomenon and figured with China’s meteoric rise up the GDP world standings that there would be throngs of scooters, and maybe even a few people ripping around on the latest performance machinery from the Big Four. Heck, I even held out hope that I would see a Harley-Davidson or two with a crowd oogling the chrome and steel. Unfortunately, what I saw was none of the above. There wasn’t a hint of recreational riding and not even a rumor of a supersport, superbike, or H-D clone where I roamed for three weeks.

The most common form of two-wheeled transport in China comes via small-displacement 2-stroke scooters  which have ingrained themselves into the economic landscape  including here at the fish market.
The most common form of two-wheeled transport in China comes via small-displacement 2-stroke scooters, which have ingrained themselves into the economic landscape, including here at the fish market.

China’s lack of recreational motorcycles dumbfounded me. Maybe I was naive coming over to the People’s Republic of China and expecting to see people decked out in Alpinestar gear and yanking wheelies down the freeways like a Far-East Las Vegas Xtremes. I wasn’t completely at a loss. Over the past decade China is the only country to manage double-digit GDP growth on an annual basis. The influx of foreign investment and growing trade gap for China means that many in the country have experienced a major improvement in standard of living and disposable income. In fact, China’s citizens currently are the world’s best savers, socking away a whopping 50% of their personal earnings. Logic would dictate that, with more money at their disposal, leisure activities would be on the rise (or so the capitalist in me believes). For motorcycle enthusiasts it means transforming the motorcycle, and all things with two (sometimes three) wheels, from a method of transportation to a vehicle of recreation.

My theory, while sound for a western mind, didn’t seem to hold up when I got to the PRC. Yet, my logic held true in some aspects of daily life. Evidence of China’s newfound relative affluence can be seen on the streets in the form of luxury vehicles. The automobile, once a possession of the elite, is becoming a more common item on the urban streets of China. Moreover, cars that indicate a certain level of income are even more common. Buicks, BMWs, and the occasional Hummer peppered the city streets and highways. Clearly, the lucky few citizens reaping the rewards of China’s Marxist capitalism are finding a way to spend their excess disposable income. However, I didn’t see one luxury/high performance motorcycle. Why is this? After all, the performance per dollar is hard to beat, and what better way to scream “look at me!” than to riding a high-performance bike down the streets of Shanghai?

Motorcycles are showing signs of growing in China into more than just a commuting option  as evidenced by the country hosting a round in the MotoGP championship.
Motorcycles are showing signs of growing in China into more than just a commuting option, as evidenced by the country hosting a round in the MotoGP championship.

For a country whose citizens have used two-wheel modes of transportation for decades and surely have experienced the freedom and thrill of riding, why aren’t there more modern motorcycles on the roadways? This is, after all, one of the few countries chosen to host a round of the MotoGP series. Shoot, the U.S. is one of the world’s greatest lovers of motorcycles, and it wasn’t until last year that we regained a round in the premier road racing series in the world. Shanghai, likely China’s most modern city, hosts an annual round of the MotoGP series. The answer may be more rudimentary than an analysis of the economic principles that dictate motorcycle sales in other countries.

For the most part, scooters dominate the urban landscape in the PRC. They sip gas, the learning curve is relatively flat, and they are affordable to many. Subsequently, China is slowly transforming from a country of bicycles to a country on the move thanks to two-stroke 50cc engines.

There are full-size motorcycles in China, but the majority are Suzuki and Honda knockoffs from the early-to-mid ’80s. One major criticism of China in recent years has been the utter disregard for intellectual property, and it appears Honda and Suzuki aren’t exempt from IP piracy. I’m not sure Honda is overly concerned that there are Chinese companies trying to recreate the 1981 Sabre, but I could be wrong.

Many of the motorcycle creations in China are jerry-rigged and used for just about everything  like this gentleman transporting a gargantuan load of packing material.
Many of the motorcycle creations in China are jerry-rigged and used for just about everything, like this gentleman transporting a gargantuan load of packing material.

Other motorcycles that appear on the road are make-shift jerry-rigged jobs. They’re used for everything from transportation to heavy hauling. The most bizarre was a gentleman who was using a trike with an ancient 250cc powerplant to haul a hefty amount of packing material around town (see pictures). Not only is it unsafe, it seems downright impractical to haul anything in this manner. Such is the situation in China where growing pains are part of the economic and Cultural Revolution that is taking place 40 years after the original social transformation. People use the means at their disposal, and sometimes the methodology might seem ludicrous from an American standpoint.

Safety is likely another glaring reason one might not ride in China for pleasure. I’ve done my share of traveling through Western and Eastern Europe and I’ve witnessed some truly freakish driving. But nowhere, and I mean nowhere, is there a driving clusterfu*k like China. Traffic laws are clearly open for interpretation, and reasonable order and courtesy are about as common as media criticism of the government. Scooters, motorcycles, and cars navigate the streets in an anarchic method. If it reduces potential road time and gets the commuter to their location more quickly, it’s done. Riding into oncoming traffic? Check. Blowing through red lights without a touch of the brakes? Check. You name a crazy offense that would get you thrown in the clink for reckless driving in the States, and I saw it in China. Yet during my 21-day trip in China I only saw one mishap involving a motorcycle. It happened when a bicyclist apparently did something that wasn’t okay according to Chinese traffic law and was summarily t-boned by a motorcycle cop. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to see the end of the situation or find out what transpired, but needless to say, when you get caught breaking the law, Chinese officials lay the smack-down.

Britney Spears would win mother of the year if she were held to China s  shall we say  looser social codes regarding child safety in motorized vehicles.
Britney Spears would win mother of the year if she were held to China’s, shall we say, looser social codes regarding child safety in motorized vehicles.

For proponents of the helmet law, China is the anti-Christ. After three weeks I counted just two helmets (both of which were half helmets) on scooter riders; two! Ben Rothlisberger would fit right in on the streets of China (with the exception of the whole bouncing his face off the pavement part). The most common form of protection is a flimsy welder-like shield that covers the face. Hey, at least it’s bug protection. As much as I’d like to point to incidents which proved the worth of helmets, I never saw one motorcyclist hit the pavement or experience a near miss during my stay.

Speaking of safety, even more shocking to an American motorcyclist is the philosophy regarding children and transportation. Need to take your kid somewhere? Throw them on the back of a scooter or motorcycle (sans helmet of course), maybe have them ride side saddle, or if you’re in a pinch have them stand up in the foot-well of the scooter. After witnessing the carefree attitude toward safety in the China, Americans look as though they want to live in protective bubbles. Or, conversely, China’s lax attitude toward safety provides as much commentary on America’s overbearing quest to keep everybody safe as it does on their relaxed safety attitudes in China. If nothing else, it provides delineation between two different philosophies and attitudes that are as far apart in basic ontology as they are geographically.

Infrastructure remains a barrier to recreational riding in China as well. While the country boasts some of the most spectacular scenery I’ve had the good fortune of viewing, the freeway/highway systems aren’t designed with driving and riding pleasure in mind. In the U.S. and Europe we are fortunate enough to have been building roads in the early and middle portions of the 20th century. The resulting infrastructure are curvaceous two-lane roads designed to provide a limited number of vehicles to get from one place to the next in a leisurely fashion. Today, we have freeways that carry tens of thousands of vehicles from one location to another, a function of increased population in our urban centers. Luckily for the touring enthusiasts, the old concrete veins that were built earlier in the 20th century remain a part of our infrastructure and offer auto and moto enthusiasts the chance to ride for the thrill of it.

In China, most of the public roads are built for efficiency and function. Moving vehicles from point A to point B remains the most important goal, not the thrill of reduced curb weight and g forces. Subsequently, adequate roads which lend themselves to touring are very limited.

These scooters also double as portable hammocks  of a sort. One reason folks in China don t ride for sheer fun  as much as us Yanks  is because the infrastructure systems are different.
These scooters also double as portable hammocks, of a sort. One reason folks in China don’t ride for sheer fun, as much as us Yanks, is because the infrastructure systems are different.

China has yet to develop an ideology of motorcycles as a recreational vehicle. Infrastructure, two-wheel philosophy and personal wealth remain obstacles for the citizens of China. However, not all hope is lost, as I found out toward the end of my visit to China.

I was fortunate to visit a section of Beijing where many citizens take part in an event called “English Corner.” Here, students and citizens looking to brush up on their English skills meet and speak English with one another. Our group of 32 MBA students paid English Corner a visit, and you can imagine the commotion that ensued. Nearly every student from our program was surrounded by at least 10 Beijing residents who were interested in hearing English from the mouth of an American. I was surprised by the number of individuals who not only spoke English but were very proficient.

We fielded questions that ranged from the political to the sexual, but the best question of the night for me was from a pair of college students who were interested in a video they saw on the internet where a rider performs a really long wheelie. They wanted to know how the pilots managed to keep the front wheel in the air for so long. I tried to explain that the individuals taught themselves how to do the tricks and it’s also a function of really powerful motorcycles which allow them to get the front end off the ground with ease and keep it at a balance point. My explanation seemed to spark their imaginations, and clearly, the seeds of motorcycledom were being sewn.

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