This is the second of several historical case studies that illustrate how important aspects of the Chinese political economy have evolved over the first 40 years of the country’s Reform and Opening policies. The first case study, on how KFC changed China and how China changed KFC, can be read here. Later this year Two Fen will publish a series of in-depth examinations of China’s economic transformation to commemorate this 40th anniversary.
Toward the end of the Qing dynasty in 1898, the most influential newspaper at the time predicted that “bicycles will prevail in the future.” It was not wrong. Invented in France, the two-wheel pedal bicycle reached China in 1868. In the decades that followed, the bicycle enjoyed steady uptake by Western expats, cosmopolitan elites, postal authorities, and armed forces, but remained an expensive curiosity for ordinary Chinese.
When the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) came to power in 1949, however, it embraced the bicycle as a symbol of proletarian progress. Chairman Mao Zedong’s government merged local bicycle producers into national champions—such as the iconic Flying Pigeon company of Tianjin, founded in 1950—that enjoyed privileged access to scarce materials. The first Five-Year Plan (1953-1957) set ambitious goals for bicycle production, which resulted in China doubling its 1949 bicycle stock to one million by 1958. The bicycle was also touted as a sort of bride-price: Together with a watch, a sewing machine, and a radio, it constituted the “three rounds and a sound” that bachelorettes of the CCP elite looked for in prospective marriage partners.
China today has over half a billion bicycles, a colossal feat of manufacturing attributable to the policies of Reform and Opening. The boom and bust cycles of the bicycle market have closely reflected the dramatic changes in the Chinese economy over the past four decades.
Bicycles dominated the streets of fast-developing Chinese cities in the 1980s and 1990s, causing a production boom as the market opened to entrepreneurs. In the mid-1990s, amid rising incomes and rapid urbanization, the Chinese government threw its weight behind the automobile industry, coinciding with declining bicycle usage and a surge in exports. But horrific traffic, coupled with the rise of environmental and health consciousness, caused urban Chinese and their governments to reconsider their choices, helping to spur today’s bike-share startups.
The humble bicycle has returned in force to China’s cities—this time not as a symbol of socialist glory but as a proxy of wealthy elites yearning for a post-material sharing society.
Bicycle Boom Time in the 1980s and early 1990s
While the phrase was first coined in the Mao era, China became widely known as the “kingdom of bicycles” in the 1980s. That’s when throngs of bicycles filled the epic boulevards of Beijing and left indelible impressions on the Westerners who came to witness China’s Reform and Opening.
Avenue of Eternal Peace (Chang’an Jie), Beijing, 1986
From journalists to mayors, foreign observers were mesmerized by the rivers of cyclists that snaked through Beijing’s concrete jungles. Pulitzer-winning China correspondent Nicholas Kristof remarked in 1988 that riding a bicycle in the city “was exhilarating, in that I was joining the proletariat, communing with the masses of cyclists pulsing through every major artery in the capital.” The Chinese capital’s bicycles even inspired New York City mayor Ed Koch to trial six-foot-wide bike lanes in Manhattan in an attempt to relieve congestion, though the experiment ended after a month for lack of use........MORE