The Bicycle as Symbol of China's Transformation

As the country has changed, so has its perception of cycling: first a cultural icon, then a sign of backwardness, and maybe now Copenhagen-style cool.

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A man rides his bicycle past police as they march in Beijing's Tiananmen Square. (Reuters)

Mayor Frank Jensen of Copenhagen was in Beijing this week, attending the 2012 Beijing Forum on the Sustainable Development of Cities, where he signed the Beijing-Copenhagen sister-city agreement on Wednesday.

The two cities -- Copenhagen, the rainy, cycle-smitten capital of the happiest country in the world, home to 1.2 million people, and bustling Beijing, a city with a population 10 times that of Copenhagen and four times that of Denmark -- may not seem to share a family resemblance at first glance. But Beijing, capital of what was once the Kingdom of Bicycles, rumored to have nine million bicycles, could learn a thing or two about reestablishing cycling culture from the Scandinavian city.

According to a 2008 report by the Earth Policy Institute, between 1995 and 2005, "China's bike fleet declined by 35 percent, from 670 million to 435 million, while private car ownership more than doubled, from 4.2 million to 8.9 million. Blaming cyclists for increasing accidents and congestion, some city governments have closed bike lanes. Shanghai even banned bicycles from certain downtown roads in 2004."

But since 2011, possibly prompted by 62-mile, nine-day traffic jams and mutinous U.S. consulates reporting on China's air quality, the Chinese government has made a U-turn in transportation policy, encouraging its citizens to get back in the saddle through bike share programs.

Hangzhou, a port city 100 miles from Shanghai, is home to the world's largest bike share program -- more than 60,000 to date, with a goal of 175,000 bikes by 2020. Beijing started its own bike share program earlier this month, and after much criticism, will start offering the bikes to non-native Beijingers -- migrant workers, tourists and foreign residents -- in October.

Meanwhile, despite China's recent decline in cycling, and a perception of biking as too utilitarian to win the kind of tribal following it has in Western cities, hipster bike culture seems to be catching on. Informal "alley cat" races have been cropping up in Ningbo, Chengzhou, Hangzhou, Shanghai, and Beijing, with turnout in some cities reaching as high as roughly 600.

In the first 30 years of communist China, people aspired to own sanshengyixiang (三转一响), or "three rounds and sound" -- a wristwatch, bicycle, sewing machine and radio: the markers of a modern man. After 1980, the bicycle, a Chinese cultural icon, came to represent Chinese backwardness. As China looked westward for the secrets of economic success and social sophistication, China's post-1980 generation developed a subliminal shame toward things intrinsically "Chinese" as well as an appetite for consumption. When asked if she'd like to go on a romantic bike ride, dating show contestant Ma Nuo caused an uproar in the Chinese media and blogosphere in 2010 with her tart retort, "I'd rather cry in the back of a BMW than smile on a bicycle."

To drive a car, to live in a city, "to get rich is glorious." But these things come with social and environmental costs. Bearing in mind that the bicycle is a Western invention, and that the recent resurgence of cycling came from beyond China's borders, a culture of cycling would give China a chance to hold its own as a socially and environmentally responsible superpower. For that reason, Beijing's partnership with Copenhagen represents a step toward greener strides and bluer skies. What sets contemporary bike culture in Copenhagen apart from its counterparts in other cities is that it's mainstream and doesn't depend on snobbery or secrecy to maintain its allure. Copenhagen has even managed to make the cargo tricycle, a symbol of 20th-century peasantry in China, cool.

To add some perspective, Copenhagen was voted #2 in Monocle's 2012 most livable cities survey, and the United Nations Development Programme ranks Denmark 16th in the world in terms of human development. Half of all Copenhageners bike to work and nearly half of Danish households don't own a car. Yet once upon a time, not too long ago, even Copenhagen wasn't bike-friendly -- it took years of policy changes and urban planning for the city to become what it is today.

Cycling will need time to become cool in China, with the current communities of bike enthusiasts limited to proportionally small tribes of alley cat racers, hipsters and the occasional expatriate oddball. But, to quote a statement commonly attributed to Asia Pacific anthropologist Margaret Mead, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has."

This article originally appeared at Asia Society, an Atlantic partner site.