China and Japan- best of enemies
Part of a series of articles on China’s main rivals in the motorcycle industry
One of the oldest rivalries in the world has been the bitter relationship between China and its arch nemesis Japan. Thankfully, in the modern era this rivalry is played out on an industrial and economic level and nowhere is the rivalry stronger than in the relative motorcycle industries.
When Chinese motorcycle manufacture began in earnest during the mid-1980’s there was little suggestion that the industry would evolve to challenge that of their traditional enemies let alone exceed it in terms of units manufactured. The burgeoning Chinese motorcycle industry had its origin grounded in the manufacture of military equipment (a la Royal Enfield, BSA, Benelli et al) and created motorcycles exclusively for the domestic market. At that time there was minimal cause for alarm amongst Japan’s ‘big 4’ who had successfully dominated the world commuter motorcycle market; nearly 30 years later things have changed significantly.
A trip back to the early 1950’s will show the Japanese motorcycle industry closely resembling the modern Chinese equivalent in terms of the amount of automotive technology companies manufacturing powered-two-wheelers. After the Second World War Japanese companies were prohibited from producing armaments leaving this industrious nation to concentrate its efforts on global supremacy through its automotive and electronics industries. During the early history of Japanese motorcycle production there were a multitude of companies producing 2-wheelers, so many in fact that the Japanese government made the decision to restrict the amount to 4 leaving companies like Fuji and Bridgestone to concentrate their efforts in other directions. The Chinese government has imposed no such restrictions and still actively encourages the opening of new motorcycle factories despite the recent industry down-turn.
It’s evident that the Chinese motorcycle industry’s relentless march to becoming the principal manufacturer of two-wheeled vehicles (petrol and electric) in the world has been aided by their aptitude to ‘clone’ the style of Japanese motorcycles and sell them at a much cheaper price. Although these days are not yet entirely gone it is obvious that the larger Chinese companies are investing in advanced R&D and design schemes in an attempt to provide workable opposition to the Japanese on ‘western’ and certain leisure motorcycle markets. This is not to say that Chinese manufacturing companies have given up completely trying to copy Japanese models. Every year Honda and Yamaha send agents to the Canton fair motorcycle section to make a note of all the ‘similarities’ between exhibited motorcycles and their models, sometimes resulting in the offending ‘clone’ being taken off display.
While Japanese supremacy holds firm for now in Europe and North America, Chinese motorcycles prevail in most of Latin America and Africa with new battlefields emerging in Brazil, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia to name but a few and although it was once the case that the Chinese and Japanese only really drew battle lines in the commuter markets of Latin America and South East Asia, now the trend is changing. Last year Chinese models outsold Japanese models in the UK for the first time, couple that with Llexeter’s winning of the ‘scooter dealership of the year’ award for 2013 (Llexeter importing and developing Chinese motorcycles and scooters) and a new tendency towards quality Chinese commuters is developing which will no doubt trouble the Japanese giants especially if China manages to capture other European markets (Chinese commuter motorcycles are now becoming much more recognised and common in Poland).
There is of course some very successful cooperation’s between Chinese and Japanese motorcycle manufacturers, not least Wuyang Honda and Sukida Honda. Chongqing giant Jianshe cooperate with Yamaha and Qingqi have a long standing relationship with Suzuki. Currently, Kawasaki is the only Japanese motorcycle company not to have a partner in China (they do in India, a coup for the Indians) although the rumours of a possible collaboration with Zongshen have been circulating for years.
In conclusion, it’s very clear that the Chinese have a long way to go to compete with the Japanese on the leisure motorcycle markets but they are fast catching up on some of the commuter markets that the Japanese might once have regarded as ‘safe’.