Two-wheeled industry goes flat as bicycle owners tire of theft

PUBLISHED : Monday, 05 January, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 05 January, 1998, 12:00am

The handlebars, frame and wheels are rusting and it could be 20 years old. But look closely above the front wheel and you can just make out the brand 'Flying Pigeon' - a legend in China's bicycle world. Rust and all, it is yours for just US$13.

'Sales of second-hand bicycles have gone up this year,' said Wang Lizhen, standing solidly behind the counter of Beixinqiao Bicycle Trust where she has worked for 20 years.

'People prefer the old models because they are less likely to be stolen. The thieves like new, flashy models. It has been a plague this year.' Organised theft is a problem bicycle producers do not need. They are already facing a saturated market and running at 50 per cent of capacity, which has forced some out of production.

Output last year was 32 million units, down from 33.61 million in 1996 and the record 44.72 million in 1995. Domestic sales last year were unchanged from 1996 at 20 million, with the rest exported.

With 450 million bicycles in use and many urban families having three or even four, most sales are replacements and not new purchases.

On the Shanghai Stock Exchange, Phoenix A shares - one of the best known bike brands - are trading at a price-earnings ratio of 2.01, one of the lowest in the market.

In Beijing, theft has become so commonplace that many do not think it worth mentioning they have lost their bikes. The police have launched repeated, well-publicised raids on black markets, but have not succeeded in stopping the trade.

Beijing people blame migrant workers who strike, usually at night, armed with pliers strong enough to break most locks. In the past, most people lived in courtyard homes where it was easy to store bikes.

Now they live in high-rises and many leave their bikes parked outside or in stairwells - easy prey for prowlers. Gangs use hooks to gather up the bicycles and throw them on the back of trucks.

'There are flourishing black markets for bicycles costing 200 yuan (about HK$186.20) or less, against 400-500 yuan for a [new] bike and 800 or more for a flashy mountain bike,' said a private businessman rich enough to have traded in his bicycle for a Jetta saloon car.

'The buyers include local people and migrants who find the bus ride too long and do not want to pay full price for a new bike.' In exasperation, the Ministry of Public Security will launch new bicycle licences nationwide on March 1. One number will be attached to the bike while another will be carried by the owner. The thief will therefore not have the complete licence.

But people are dubious whether this will work, since the police have more important things to do than check bike licences.

The wave of thefts is hurting sales of new models. A salesman in the bicycle section of the popular Landao department store in northeast Beijing said that sales fell about 30 per cent last year, especially for the more expensive models, mainly because of the thefts.

'People do not want to buy a new bicycle or replace their old one with a new one. They just stick with the old model. Personally, I do not dare to ride a new one,' he said. 'The thefts are well organised and the bicycles are sold in markets, although I do not know where they are.' At his counter, you can buy the standard Forever model for 460 yuan or spend up to 8,800 yuan on a carbon-fibre racing bike made by a joint-venture factory in Shenzhen that produces mainly for export.

All this means good business at the Beixinqiao store, one of only two shops in Beijing legally selling second-hand bicycles.

'We do not accept second-hand bicycles without the little book that proves ownership,' said Ms Wang. 'The black markets are all out in the suburbs.' Her shop, set up in the 1950s, is a remnant of socialism on a busy street of post-socialist boutiques and supermarkets, with Mercedes and Lexuses flashing past. It offers a modest selection of new bicycles as well as rusty ones, with the seats torn and mouldy, costing no more than you would pay on the black market.

Prize of the collection are two antique but rideable and good-condition English Raleigh bicycles, costing 450 and 760 yuan, imported before the Communist takeover in 1949 and looking none the worse for all the anti-imperialist struggles since then. Organised crime or not, the bicycle division of the state Light Industry Bureau is bullish.

'Sure, the problem of theft is serious and competition in the market is very fierce, especially in more expensive models,' an official said.

'But which country in the world produces more than 30 million bicycles? They promote bicycles in foreign countries now as good for health and non-polluting. I am optimistic for the future.'