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Should I buy a Chinese motorcycle?



Human rights | Intellectual property theft | Poor quality | Politics | Manufacturing


Chinese motorcycles - should I buy one?

▲ Left to right Mutt Mauler 125, AJS Tempest Scrambler 125, Herald Café 125. Three cool-looking British spins on a Chinese motorcycle platform. Having these bikes reworked in the UK adds to the asking price. But if you talk to other firms you can have your "cheap Chinese import" without frills. However, what's the underlying cost of buying a Chinese bike at any price? See text for our take...



We can tell you from the start that we wouldn't buy a purely Chinese-built motorcycle, full stop. And it hasn't got anything to do with the quality of the product which started out as dangerously poor and has since become much better; so much so that it's getting difficult to distinguish "Chinese rubbish" from bikes built by the more established manufacturers in Japan, Europe, India and elsewhere. In fact, many of these manufacturers have production facilities in China.


In a moment we'll explain exactly why we wouldn't buy a purely Chinese-built bike. But first some background. It won't take long.



Chinese motorcycle factories


As of November 2019, there are hundreds of Chinese manufacturers turning out bikes of all shapes, sizes and description. Scooters and electrics too. China's domestic market buys the vast majority of these motorcycles (we're talking of million of units per annum) followed by other countries in the Far East. Tens of thousands more Chinese motorcycles are sold into Western markets (or dumped, according to some), and their price pretty much reflects their quality.


The ultra cheap stuff is ... well, ultra cheap. We're talking low quality steels, fracture prone light alloys, poor welding, serious misalignment, sub-standard paint and chrome, and a general lack of robustness. In the worst examples, the engineering quality cuts corners like a roundabout—but there are also a lot of new motorcycles that have been built to much higher standards with design and production overseen by engineers from Japan and the West who (arguably) better understand precision manufacture.



Mutt, Herald and AJS


Chinese brands (or sub-brands) are coming on and off the market so quickly that it's all but impossible to keep a check on who's selling what and where. In the UK, for instance, there are plenty of re-manufacturers (for want of a better term) who are flogging bikes built on a Chinese platform, but modified to suit their target markets. These are companies such as Mutt, Herald, and AJS who produce a pretty decent range of small capacity bikes that have been fettled, adjusted and (in most cases) re-equipped to a greater or lesser degree.


In recent years, many Chinese companies have moved beyond simply following trends and ripping-off intellectual property from other firms. They've actually taken a lead in some areas and are producing bikes that are up-to-the-minute, and are even slightly beyond. That's helped dispelled some of the negativity surrounding their product. As a result, UK importers are becoming increasingly confident about marketing and supporting Chinese bikes. Moreover, there are many partnerships evolving between Chinese and occidental or Japanese companies. Ultimately, business will always follow the money, and there's still plenty of that to be squeezed out of China.


Yes, there are still issues regarding quality. Product recalls are often wilfully overlooked. And replacement parts can still be hard to source—although all the other Japanese and Western manufacturers occasionally have similar issues.


The bottom line is that for many riders looking for a new motorcycle (especially at the budget/commuter end of the market), Chinese bikes are not necessarily the best option, but are in fact the only real option.


So today you can buy a Chinese motorcycle with more confidence than before, and many owners of such machines report tens of thousands of miles and years of use without significant issues. But keep in mind that second-hand prices relating to these bikes is often very low.


So what the hell has buying motorcycles got to do with human rights, Chinese or otherwise? Well we've got our views on the subject, but you'll have to answer that question for yourself. Just remember that everything is ultimately political, be it petrol tanks or battle tanks.




Meanwhile, to explain why we wouldn't buy a purely Chinese-built motorcycle, we can summarise that in two words: Tiananmen Square. Many people around the world have largely forgotten China's abysmal record on human rights, but many others haven't forgotten. And China is still locking up millions without trial, suppressing minority groups, colonising parts of the Far East in which it has no legitimate place, and still executes political dissidents. Moreover, increased militarization by the Chinese government is further destabilising the region and is daily increasing the possibility of an armed conflict. And then there are issues surrounding Hong Kong and Taiwan.


We're not suggesting that the West and other parts of the world (Japan, Australia, New Zealand, etc) should totally sideline China. Far from it. The best way to address Chinese human rights issues, and other political issues, is to engage, not exclude. But engaging doesn't mean surrendering values at every opportunity. Engaging doesn't mean expediently overlooking Chinese human rights abuses. Engaging doesn't mean giving the Chinese a clear field.



Intellectual property theft and
industrial malpractices


Part of our related trading concerns is also the rampant growth of China as a manufacturing hub. Cheap labour and a blasé attitude towards issues such as the theft of intellectual property coupled with other unacceptable commercial practices has outpaced industrial readjustment elsewhere in the world. And the faster we pour money into China, the harder it hits established domestic businesses in the West that are broadly (and we did say "broadly") playing by the generally accepted rules of international free trade.


In short, we want to see China present a new and very different front before we hand over any more of our money than is necessary. Of course, our boycotting activities are trivial and amounts to no more than a grain of sand on a beach (or a "Hill of beans" if you're a fan of Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca). But sometimes you have to make a stand somewhere, and it's up to others to play the game as they see fit. But this particular game is too heavily rigged, and we're throwing our cards down as far as motorcycling is concerned (notwithstanding the fact that many of the spares and servicing equipment we buy is made in China).


C'est la vie.


So if you're buying Chinese, either factor in the issues we've mentioned, or don't. It's your call. The bikes are better and better each year. Western engagement with the Chinese state is increasing steadily. China has made huge strides in the right direction. But the country (or state) still has a way to go regarding human rights abuses. And we're reacting to that.


As for the British-based firms re-manufacturing or adapting Chinese bikes, we're adopting a more conciliatory—and even supportive—attitude to them. The trading imbalance, after all, isn't so great here. British jobs (to focus our concerns more locally) are benefiting from such re-manufacturing. And these firms are helping to constructively engage with China and (consciously or otherwise) help provide valuable feedback to the Chinese state which, we hope, will help moderate political and industrial behaviours.


Chinese bike dealers


Finally, what about those dealers who are happy to retail Chinese bikes; i.e. happy to bring them into the country and flog 'em off without further input? Well we don't have a problem with that. People have to choose their own ideas of morality. And you've gotta eat. However, we wouldn't go there, not while there so much good second-hand British, Japanese, German, Italian and American bikes on the market.


Buy Chinese bikes if you must. But buy them whilst mindful of the wider picture, if you will. There are other costs here that someone has to bear.





Hi, very interesting article about Chinese motorcycles. Not going to get into an argument or debate with you. Much of which I agree with you. However.... To keep my old BMW boxer and even older BSA from succumbing to the winter weather and to keep them in tip top condition for nice days, I commute 40 miles through the North Yorkshire countryside each and everyday on my 125 Sinnis Terrain—a bike that's never once let me down, is frugal on the fuel, and really comfy. I ride in all conditions and weathers, even now. It gets a foam wash and wax once a week, and is home serviced and maintained. Its looks belie the 18,420 miles it's got on the clock. Just saying...—Pete








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