China Motorcycling: Great Leap Forward

Chinese International Motorcycle Exhibition

China. One-point-three billion people. Ninety-four million motorcycles. The world’s largest two-wheel marketplace. Is the country simply a low-cost manufacturing juggernaut, or is it poised to reshape the future of our industry?

Consider the following scenario: October 2019. I am riding the new Golden Horse, an all-wheel drive, electric-biodiesel hybrid superbike, on the new motorway connecting Shanghai and Chongqing, to the 18th edition of CIMA, the China International Motorcycle Exhibition. The sprawling facility includes exhibition hall, stadium, motorcycle museum, and luxury hotel, and is now the number one motorcycle trade fair worldwide.

International designers and engineers work alongside their homegrown counterparts, fashioning exciting new bikes. A former world MotoGP champion and a US Supercross legend, sit on the advisory board of CIMA. China’s national racing team in the TT-X electric motorcycle Grand Prix series celebrates its victory at Shanghai.

The Golden Horse superbike is one of the government’s national ride-on-demand virtual ownership fleet of millions of eco-friendly motorcycles and scooters. It cruises in silken silence at 180 km/h, thanks to the engineering partnership with a German automaker renowned for all-wheel-drive vehicles and Le Mans-winning diesel engines.

CIMA 2019 opens with a gala at Chongqing’s futuristic opera house on the banks of the Yangtze River, complete with spectacular fireworks illuminating a flotilla of megayachts. Performances by the China National Opera Company and Cirque du Soleil and an international VIP guest list, plus a biker build-off between the world’s elite bespoke motorcycle creators using alternative energy power, are broadcast and webcast worldwide by China Television and Sky.

Looking ahead less than a decade, the aforementioned scenario is possible. Is it probable? Visiting CIMA 2010 in Chongqing, China’s largest motorcycle fair answers the question, in part. It is supported by CIMA’s alliance with the United Nations International Development Organization, and boasts 650,000 square feet of displays, 450 exhibitors, and 70,000 visitors promoting the progress and vision of the public and private sectors in domestic and global motorcycle development.

Describing China confronts ingrained perceptions-Maoism turned giant, overwhelming the world with cheap goods. Western socioeconomic observers, such as Ted C. Fishman in his 2006 book, China, Inc., seek clarity: "The world shrinks as China grows," he writes, enumerating China’s manufacturing advances in electronics, apparel, automotive components, biotech, computers, and aerospace. "The words ‘Made in China’ are as universal as money." If a motorcyclist looks at the parts inside his machine and the labels on his gear, those words appear more and more frequently. So is a motorcycle’s nationality irrelevant?

A first-time visitor to China, I landed at Shanghai’s ultra-modern Pudong airport after a flight traversing the polar cap, the International Date Line, and Siberia. Connecting to an Air China Boeing 737 to Chongqing was seamless after fending off the young airport bookstore clerk selling DVDs guaranteed to fast-track me to fluent Chinese. Once free of baggage claim, CIMA had a sparkling new Chinese-built Volkswagen Passat deliver me to a four-star hotel in the city’s high-tech district.

Chongqing, 35-million strong, inland about 900 miles due southeast along the Yangtze River from the coast, is one of China’s five major cities officially designated "in charge of leading, developing, and performing tasks in political, economic and cultural aspects." Construction and renovation make it the fastest-growing, and possibly the largest, municipality in the world-a key historical and manufacturing center, it is the transportation hub for the southwest regions.

Chongqing is home to one of the country’s top universities, and leading minds such as Professor Emeritus of Law at the National University of Chongqing, Ch’u Chai. His seminal work, The Story of Chinese Philosophy, explains how the two major forces, Confucianism and Taoism, originating in the sixth century BCE, are fundamental to understanding the culture. The word "jen", the ideograph comprising "man" and "two", symbolizes balance between idealism, realism, and humanism. According to Confucius, "The man of jen is one who wishing to sustain himself, sustains others, and wishing to develop himself, develops others."

Motorcycling is perfectly congruent with jen, balancing the idea and the reality of the ride. It is no wonder, then, that China embraces the two-wheel world. As wealth grows, the two-wheel world covets China’s present and future customers. And as the official message China promotes is "Harmony", the country appears to be open for business.

While cues of the global village are here, the Chinese government’s hand is clear in the transition from an insular society under Mao Zedong to a capitalist international economy. The Great Leap Forward, a Maoist slogan, evoked China’s historic ability to mobilize its masses in pursuit of progress.

That slogan takes on new meaning at CIMA 2010. The steel and glass exhibition hall with four floors of shiny metal, beautiful youth, loud music and curious crowds, are overflowing with machinery and accessories, from domestic and foreign brands.

CIMA was a four-day marathon: symposia on every aspect of the industry; the coordinated implementation of green technologies in public and personal transportation; international speakers addressing China’s entry into export markets; forums; interviews; lunches; dinners; banquets (sampling everything from fire-braised pig’s ears to real turtle soup); awards; and tours of motorcycle factories on compounds of sprawling, carefully manicured acreage. There were day trips to the outskirts of Chongqing including a motocross event and motorcycle rally, accompanied by our interpreters who were bright twenty-somethings from Chongqing University as switched on as their Western contemporaries.

Chongqing transports you centuries into the past as it yanks you into the future. Eras are spackled atop one another, as there is every style of building imaginable. Endless waves of traffic flow with street sweepers dashing to and fro, as diesel buses, cars of domestic and foreign origin, motorcycles, scooters and three-wheeled utility vehicles duke it out. Above it all is the ever-present aural and visual overlays of Chinese dialects and pictograms, hanzi, pinyin and English.

Cityscape to countryside, consumption and construction are everywhere. Factory workers, fishermen, and farmers carry on, though the contrast of austerity and opulence are not as dramatic as one might suppose. The so-called New Business Class follows a tradition of traders back to Marco Polo’s time.

What is unprecedented is the extent of Chinese contemporary wealth, and its local and global impact. Motorcycle culture is rooted, like the Europeans’, in small displacement machines and congested urban environments. Most use their rides as transportation, though a growing number for sport and leisure.

As Wei Wang, the Director of CIMA, explained in conversation, "Now, in China, some rich young men are crazy for a fashionable and free lifestyle." These entrepreneurs and professionals are buying pedigreed foreign marques. "Such bike brands like Ducati and Harley-Davidson will experience a dramatic sales growth. At the moment, this type of motorcycle is not manufactured in China, therefore the famous names in the industry should foresee a bright future here." Energetic and candid, Mr. Wang is a gracious host who looks like he would be as happy riding a big cruiser as managing an exhibition.

Combine China’s growing motorcycle manufacturing capacity with the ability to launch space rockets, the world’s fastest supercomputer, largest solar energy field, and fastest high-speed passenger train, what can we expect from Chinese motorcycling in the near future? CIMA’s invited international journalists discussed a worldwide market assault similar to the Japanese manufacturers’ back in the 1960s.

The consensus is that Chinese motorcycles offer the entry-level motorcyclist a credible, affordable option; the question is whether Chinese brands can win share and loyalty in mature markets. Similar challenges faced Japan’s motorcycle manufacturers, and history reminds us the skeptics were wrong. As China posts significant sales numbers in South America, Asia, and Africa, it seems inevitable that America and Europe will follow.

Conversely, for companies who want to enter China, cost reduction achieved by relocating is a factor. Mr. Wang points out, "China welcomes foreign companies. Among major Japanese firms with enterprises and joint ventures here, Honda’s annual Chinese sales have now reached 800,000 units."

This foreign presence does not perturb domestic brands. Key industry figures remind us that competition improves the breed.

"I see my competitors as friends, not rivals," says Zuo Zongshen, founder and President of the industry-leading firm bearing his name. Using expressions such as "customer focus" with the ease of a Stanley Marcus, Mr. Zongshen’s story of a rise from bicycle repair shop to diversified giant evokes another motorcycle pioneer, Soichiro Honda.

Visiting Zongshen’s world-class facility outside of Chongqing-where the in-factory banners proclaim, "Never put off tasks! Run after achievements!"-is a comprehensive course in the history of motorcycling in China. Its museum showcases prototypes to production models, and references Steve McQueen and other motorcycling icons. Among the eye-catchers-a vintage moped with a dragon’s head sprouting from the handlebars, and a showroom banner of smiling bikers with the headline, "It’s 100% Happiness!"

Asked to define his organization in a single word, Zongshen smiles and says, "Change." A vibrant 50 years old, Zuo Zongshen clearly loves what he does. "Our idea of the market is to make motorcycles that are suitable to the needs and means of both current and potential buyers," he says. The range covers every shape and style, though displacement tops out at 650cc. "That we are not currently mass-producing high-performance machinery does not mean we are not capable of doing so," Zongshen points out. "When the time is appropriate, we will consider integrating those kinds of products into our range."
As for racing, the firm competes in domestic events and has produced a 250cc unit that won the FIM Endurance event at Vallelunga in 2002. A partnership with Piaggio gives the Italians a beachhead in the Chinese market while they share know-how. The company’s PEM division, listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange, leads the charge towards electric powered bikes and scooters.

The expansion strategy for Chinese motorcycling includes the acquisition of foreign brands. Benelli made headlines when it was bought by Zhejiang Qianjiang, which produces over 1.2 million two-wheel units, including half a million scooters, and everything from cars to lawnmowers to golf carts.

The company proudly highlights its "ultra-modern city-sized factory occupying 670,000 square meters, equipped with sophisticated machine tools imported from Germany, Italy and the U.S." Its executives lauded the Benelli bikes at CIMA: "These motorcycles are ‘toys for rich boys.’ But what is particularly interesting for us is Benelli’s single-cylinder direct fuel injection, an example of where Italian companies have excelled."

When the financial muscle of Chinese companies enables an Italian icon to flourish, is it the death of the nation-specific motorcycle? Or is it the birth of a global best-of-the-best in design and development, for an ever-larger audience? At CIMA, cross-pollination showed many faces.

Haojue’s MotoGP project engaged legendary racing champion Sir John Surtees; their consumer range, and those of their partners Suzuki, shared the stand. Honda, with the largest display, had its bikes built in China by Wuyang alongside models like the new VFR1200F. Consistent with its strategy, Honda sponsors young racers and delivers its classic message of a motorcycle for every rider.

Kawasaki took a conservative approach, showing just a few sport-touring and dual-purpose models. The head of Chinese market development, Eigo Konya, explained they are in study mode, though the parent, Kawasaki Heavy Industries, has various manufacturing sites and joint ventures in China in engine manufacture, engineering, energy conservation equipment, shipbuilding and steelmaking. Konya added, "Chinese motorcycles are very, very competitive. In five years, some of the players will become strong rivals."

Yamaha, with three factories in China, are bullish. "This is the largest motorcycle market in the world, with a projected total demand in 2010 of 16.5 million units. We believe in the long run there will be gradual growth, and stable demand," explained YMC Japan’s spokesperson. "Currently there are about 170 motorcycle manufacturers in China, but with the implementation of new environmental regulations, we foresee a shakeout in the industry, technologically less-advanced manufacturers dropping out of the picture." YMC also observed a growing trend toward personalization. With the rise of wealthy Chinese bikers, will bespoke creations of custom builders and designers take hold? Bling has been the thing going back to the days of Ming; the bike as fashion statement is already modus vivendi.

Harley-Davidson created great anticipation at CIMA. Steve Wasser, representing the Motor Company’s Chinese commercial entity, announced, "We’re not here to promote American values. We’re here to make new motor-cycle friends." Seeing local Harley enthusiasts celebrate the lifestyle-signature machinery with all the chrome, Screamin’ Eagle performance bits, along with the well-known fashion accessories-shows that Harley believes its vocabulary is spoken there. As Wasser outlined in his press conference, Harley Owner Groups have riding activities and rallies throughout China.

Ducati took its own route. Mirko Bordiga of Ducati’s Asia Pacific arm explained that the Bologna-based company opened a regional office and first Ducati store in Shanghai in 2009, followed by Beijing, and will launch a Ducati Café showcasing branded apparel in 2011. Bordiga identifies a key issue, telling us "local regulations are not very friendly to motorcycles, as many cities either ban two-wheelers, like Guangzhou, while others strictly regulate the displacement of the bikes you can register."

The situation in China appears to mirror EU constraints, but Ducati is confident in its niche appeal. "Import duties, presently at 40-percent for our bikes, mean we attract high-income customers, such as young entrepreneurs with experience living abroad who already know our brand. At the moment, the Monster 796, Hypermotard 796 and Multistrada are most popular."

For the small volume, premium Confederate Motorcycles, China also has luster. Company executive David Guido shares this news: "A group in Beijing has made a deal to import and assemble motorcycles for sale in China, shipped as kits for final assembly there."

The female motorcyclist may not be a force yet, but women’s biker clubs are sprouting. Scooters and small-displacement motorcycles predominate; as women assert themselves, one expects a broader choice. Dayang’s stand of stylish female-friendly machines were bannered with confident, glamorous images of international film actress Li Gong (Miami Vice and Curse of the Golden Flower).

The future of motorcycling in China may hinge on the country’s move away from fossil fuels. CIMA displayed a significant variety of electric-powered two-wheelers. It seems just a matter of time before they put a full range into mass production.

This may be, in fact, the real Great Leap Forward. Whereas the more-established names have built their reputations on a history of gasoline engines, China’s motorcycles may simply skip to the next phase. Traditionalists may recoil at the thought of exhaust pipes and their roar becoming extinct, yet the new generation may embrace electricity’s silent speed. China has the means, and the market, to make it happen-perhaps within the decade-especially if it were to engage the knowhow of the pioneers in electric superbikes.

The trump card of Chinese industry is that it has cash at its disposal, and an open mind toward buying the best intellectual and technological assets, regardless of nationality. To assemble an elite team who can create the ultimate is nothing new-to wit, the magnificent architecture of buildings like the Chongqing Opera House or the Hermann Tilke-designed Shanghai International Circuit that hosts MotoGP.

China embraces change, as Zuo Zongshen stated. Ducati’s Mirko Bordiga shares, "What I have learned during my six years in China is that the Chinese company reacts very quickly to every market opportunity they see. The real market here is still up to 250cc, but if the government regulations change, I am quite confident they will be able to create a suitable product for the domestic market. At the moment, there are just a very few companies producing 600cc bikes, mainly for export."

The younger face of Chinese motorcycling is Shineray, who invited us to its new motocross testing ground and factory site. Shineray’s motto translates to a Chinese take on "Stay on the throttle and keep the rubber side down." This is, according to the company, emblematic of "ambition and motivation. We are a creator of fortune, knowledge, and other spiritual resources, and share them with investors, partners and staff."

In addition to building ATVs, dual purpose, motocross, and sportbikes, Shineray sponsors a domestic motocross series, the Shineray Cup, and have put together a factory team in World MX1 and MX2. Sales in China were 80,000, plus a quarter-million in export markets.

As we watched Shineray’s bikes on the test track against an entire gamut of competing brands, their Sales Manager-who insisted in flawless British-accented English, that I call him Raymond-talked about "our most popular models: the X2 motocross with a water-cooled, DOHC, four-valve, 250cc engine, our street bike, the XY250-5A with a 250cc oil-cooled, balance-shaft, four-stroke engine."

"The core market is currently in the 110 to 150cc segment, but we see rapid growth in progressively larger machinery," Raymond says. "With the development of Chinese cities, young men under 30 are getting richer, and are very enthusiastic about motorcycle sports."

The racers hurtle on, and I consider that Chongqing has weather, topography, and riding conditions not unlike California. Our conversation turns to North America. "We are already there," Raymond states.

The Chinese motorcycle image in mature markets is fuzzy, but Greg Heichelbech, CEO of Triumph NA points out, "As to the current and future competitiveness, they are a close watch. They have and can make quality product but they have a long journey in developing distribution, branding and customer service to the levels the US consumer demands."

The buzz of the motocross event still echoed as we travelled along the winding two-lane blacktop into the hills where CIMA’s celebratory rally will be held, on the site of a thermal spa hotel. I watched an old man scurrying along the roadside as we passed, carrying water buckets hanging from the bamboo staff across his shoulders, and I pined for the chance to ride all the roads that beg to be discovered in this hypnotic land. Our group arrived to see yesterday and today meet tomorrow-the Jialings, Loncins, Lifans, and Zongshens fraternizing with the Ducatis, Kawasakis, BMWs, and Harleys. "We are here to make new motorcycle friends," the quote repeated itself. The truth is embedded wherever two wheels roll.

As the machines preened by the banks of the jade waters of the Jialing River, I crossed a wood suspension footbridge and explored ancient Buddhist grottoes. The scene is familiar, painted on silk, with fine brushstrokes in muted watercolors. This taste of China made me want to return for a feast of motorcycling. Maybe I’ll find an old military bike with a sidecar, pack light, tuck a copy of The Story of Chinese Philosophy in my leather jacket, and seek "jen" on my journey.

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