It’s complicated: China’s relationship with the bicycle, then and now

Society & Culture

Despite cycling's growing popularity and favorable government policies, significant roadblocks exist for the formerly self-styled "Bicycle Kingdom" to reclaim its steel and aluminum throne.

In the 1980s, a typical vignette of Beijing’s urban landscape would feature thousands of nigh-uniformly dressed locals riding down the ancient capital’s broad avenues on an European instrument once deemed uncouth by Chinese elites — the bicycle. Over the second half of the 20th century, this alien contraption fell into China’s good graces, becoming an indispensable piece of hardware for the average Chinese household and transforming the Middle Kingdom into the world’s “Bicycle Kingdom.” During Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule, the bicycle was a proud symbol of the proletariat, and later, amid paramount leader Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, it was a sign of financial progress.

But rising incomes, technological advancements, and policy neglect led to a dramatic decline in bicycle ownership, as car culture went into overdrive in the early 2000s. With more than 300 million registered vehicles and as the world’s largest producer of automobiles, China has unofficially attained another curious title: the “Automobile Kingdom.” At the turn of the millennium, Chinese state media referred to the bicycle’s demise as the “nation’s full-fledged entry into ‘car society.'” The wealthy port municipality of Dalian even declared itself a “bicycle-free city.” One’s status of urban sophistication was seemingly no longer judged by whether you owned a two-wheeler, but rather a four-wheeler.

As someone who has lived in Xiamen, Shanghai, and Beijing over nine years, the image of the perpetual traffic jam is firmly entrenched in my psyche. When I picked up cycling in Shanghai in 2017 at the behest of a close friend, I was introduced to a different picture of the prototypical bustling Chinese metropolis — albeit one that was most pronounced before 6 a.m. What I saw was a budding cycling culture, with Chinese and expat cyclists defying both the city’s notoriously congested streets and expert-recommended hours of sleep.

Since then, the community and infrastructure have grown quite a bit. Over the last few years, I’ve taken stock of the improved cycling infrastructure around Shanghai during morning rides, such as additional dedicated bike lanes and improvements on new cycling paths. I have also noticed more and more people riding bikes around the city’s art deco neighborhoods, too. With some quick research, my observations were confirmed by an increased policy focus on promoting cycling at the national, provincial, and municipal levels across China. This growing emphasis largely manifests in more infrastructure initiatives and public-private collaboration on cycling events like competitions.

Another set of factors are also at play in reviving China’s mercurial love affair with owning a bike despite the 21st-century cultural shift to cars. A burgeoning leisure class, urban congestion, and greater environmental and health awareness explain why many Chinese are considering owning a “pedal pusher.” While a far cry from the reported 670 million bicycle owners in the ’90s, the domestic cycling population is expected to rebound to more than 120 million by 2020, according to China Daily.

Cities from Xiamen to Shenzhen are looking to cut through congestion and promote bicycle ownership and use by constructing cycling networks. Xiamen’s answer to this conundrum came in 2017 with the unveiling of the “world’s longest elevated cycleway,” a 7.6-kilometer-long suspended bicycle path. “There’s been a lot of infrastructure improvement, especially in Shanghai and some other tier-two, tier-three cities,” explains Singaporean Ken Goh, founder of RideNow Cycle Club (RNCC), China’s largest community of cyclists and a pioneer in China’s club cycling scene.

In Beijing, for instance, a 6.5-kilometer-long elevated “bicycle freeway” opened in May of last year in the city’s northwestern suburbs. The bikes-only path aims to ease subway congestion for tens of thousands of daily commuters between Huilongguan and Shangdi, one of Beijing’s “Silicon Valleys.” Beijing Youth Daily reported that the cycling path was used over 40,000 times in its first three days of opening — but also saw more than 8,000 pedestrians and nearly 4,000 electric bikes.

Taken during a RideNow Cycle Club-organized ride around Shanghai. Photo credit: Ken Goh

Many provinces have also started constructing networks of cycling paths. Zhejiang Province perhaps has China’s most ambitious cycling infrastructure agenda, as local officials look to create “cycling under heaven.” In 2018, the Zhejiang provincial government unveiled a massive cycling infrastructure initiative aimed at building a “10,000-kilometer network of green cycling paths” (“万里骑行绿道网” wànlǐ qíxíng lǜdào wǎng) by 2022; the price tag, 20 billion yuan ($2.8 billion).

On the national level, a drive to promote fitness activities like cycling has amplified under President Xi Jinping. This past September, the government doubled down on building up the sports industry with fresh guidelines. The new regulations expanded on a 2014 initiative to develop China’s sports industry and environment, including improving cycling roads. Promotion of sports and exercise like cycling is also embodied by President Xi’s signature 2016 initiative, “Healthy China 2030” (“健康中国2030”规划纲要 jiànkāng zhōngguó 2030 guīhuà gāngyào). The plan, which broadly aims to improve society’s overall health (as well as healthcare), calls on the public and private sector to encourage the growth of fitness activities and allocate more public resources to incubate a sprawling fitness environment.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang, for his part, shined a spotlight on China’s homegrown bike industry back in 2016. In a nod to Deng Xiaoping, who defined economic prosperity as a “Flying Pigeon bicycle in every household,” Li paid a visit to the first-ever Chinese bike brand’s flagship experience store. During the shop tour, the prime minister said that he “would advertise for Chinese bicycles.” cycling competition in Ninghai County, Zhejiang Province, 2018. Photo credit: Zhang Yong

Cycling tourism and races are becoming more frequent, in part due to public sector support. Zhang Yong, the founder of (骑友网 qíyǒuwǎng), a social media platform for cycling enthusiasts, says he has seen an uptick in the number of people registering for cycling tourism activities. The Yangtze River Delta region, in particular, has transformed into a popular area for domestic-run cycling races and international competitions. In the last several years, there have been Tour de France-organized events held in cities from Shanghai to Changsha to Zhuji. Local officials are keen to use the name recognition and popularity of the cycling tour to drum up enthusiasm for China’s sports and tourism industries. Events like the Tour de France Shanghai Criterium — held for the third time in November — consistently draw international and local crowds, with pro cycling teams and star riders likewise participating.

Authorities in China’s southwest are getting in on the action, too, collaborating with big-name cycling event organizers and expanding cooperation with local partners. The Haute Route, a popular multi-day cycling event for amateur riders and enthusiasts, completed its inaugural event in Dujiangyan, Sichuan, in late October last year. And in early November, the Gran Fondo Yunnan, a multi-day stage, long-distance event popular with amateur cyclists eager to test their mettle riding across Yunnan’s elevated terrain, concluded its final stage in Lijiang. The event organizer’s website boasts that the race allows riders to “get a taste of what the Tour de France is like.” Not to be outdone, Tour de France held the L’Etape Chengjiang race in Yunnan in December, its first-ever in southwest China.

RNCC riders pictured in front of Yamdrok Lake in Tibet. Ken Goh, pictured center-front; author pictured back row, seventh from the right. Photo credit: Ken Goh

Despite increased government emphasis at national and local levels, as well as a growing grassroots community of Chinese bike enthusiasts and events, the bicycle’s appeal among the masses as other than a means of transportation remains to be seen. This lack of cycling enthusiasm mostly boils down to an issue of cycling culture — or lack thereof. “China has never had cycling as a lifestyle, so it’s hard,” remarks Goh.

He added that one of his reasons for founding RNCC in 2016 was a personal desire to help foster an indigenous cycling culture. “When I saw what was happening in Singapore and many other countries, I felt that the community, the lifestyle and the culture in China was almost negligible, there was nothing.”

This cultural absence has a permeating effect on cycling of all levels. In terms of competitive cycling, Zhang says that the lackluster cycling culture is stunting China’s ambitions to produce Tour de France-caliber cyclists. “It might take another 30 or 40 years,” Zhang says. “Because you need culture — China lacks the culture of cycling.”

Put simply, besides the more affluent, active, or alternative, the bicycle isn’t the same status symbol it once was among the greater Chinese population. The automobile is king of the road for now with Chinaʼs car-centric consumer class.

Yet cautious optimism remains for the reemergence of China’s cycling scene, not as just a mode of transportation but as a means of recreation and sport — a lifestyle. It’s not whether China will reclaim its title as the world’s “Bicycle Kingdom,” but rather, how long reclamation will take.