Saturday, November 22, 2008

Asia’s Model T.

Horses are still a common sight in the grasslands but, increasingly, it is just as common to see a motorcycle parked outside a nomad's tent. Some riders decorate their motorcycles with photographs of the Dalai Lama or with ornate Tibetan rugs. Others wear felt cowboy hats or colorful robes as they speed down the region's lone two-lane highway, often with a wife or child sitting in the rear.

Via: managing the dragon
"According to Douglas Brinkley, who wrote Wheels for the World on the occasion of the 100th year anniversary of the Ford Motor Company, “Ford’s reasonably priced and well made assembly-line Model T mobilized America’s middle class.”

Before the introduction of the Model T by Ford in 1908, only the rich could afford an automobile. Priced at $850, the Model T began America’s love affair with the automobile by making the purchase of a car possible for a wider range of Americans, even the ordinary workers in the country’s steel and automobile factories. The rest is history.

A Tibetan nomad leans on the motorcycle parked inside her tent.

In much the same way, the motorcycle has liberated hundreds of millions of Chinese. When I first began traveling through the China countryside in 1993, I was amazed at how motorcycles were being used to transport people and goods over less than ideal roads, in much the same way that Americans might transport people and goods on American highways. It was not uncommon then, and it is not uncommon now, to see whole families riding on a single motorcycle, or a farmer transporting a dozen chickens to market on his two wheeled “truck.”

Even at that early date, China was the largest manufacturer of motorcycles in the world. In 1992, China’s more than 100 motorcycle manufacturers produced close to 2 million motorcycles. But that was only the beginning. In 2007, China produced well over 23 million motorcycles and is far and away the largest manufacturer in the world.

Over the past five years, the auto industry has been getting all of the headlines for its role in mobilizing China’s urban population, but the motorcycle has been quietly doing the same job for the two-third’s of the country’s population that depend upon the agricultural economy for their well being. While China’s rural population might prefer to drive a car or a truck, even the cheapest vehicles are still outside their reach. Priced at anywhere from the equivalent of $300 to $900, however, motorcycles can perform many of the same functions, even if they do so with much less comfort.

In addition to providing wheels for the China economy, motorcycles made in China are now a big export item. In 2007, China exported over 9.0 million motorcycles to 159 countries, including Nigeria, Turkey, Argentina, Indonesia, Columbia, Venezuela, Mexico, Brazil, Myanmar, Philippines, Vietnam and Laos. And, those China made motorcycles are having the same impact on many of those countries that they have had on China’s—they are transforming them.

A Tibetan nomad looks over the selection of motorcycles for sale at the Doulong Store in Madoi, China

Just before the end of the year, my youngest daughter, who is about to embark on a year-long, around the world trip which will take her to a number of Asian countries, pointed me to a New York Times article written by Thomas Fuller: In Laos, Chinese Motorcycles Change Lives.

Here are a few excerpts that I found particularly interesting:

The pineapples that grow on the steep hills above the Mekong River are especially sweet, the red and orange chilies unusually spicy, and the spring onions and watercress retain the freshness of the mountain dew. For years, getting this prized produce to market meant that someone had to carry a giant basket on a back-breaking, daylong trek down narrow mountain trails cutting through the jungle. That is changing, thanks in large part to China. Villagers ride their cheap Chinese motorcycles, which sell for as little as $440, down a dirt road to the markets of Luang Prabang, a charming city of Buddhist temples along the Mekong that draws flocks of foreign tourists. The trip takes one and a half hours. “No one had a motorcycle before,” said Khamphao Janphasid, 43, a teacher in the local school whose extended family now has three of them. “The only motorcycles that used to be available were Japanese, and poor people couldn’t afford them.” Inexpensive Chinese products are flooding China’s southern neighbors like Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam. The products are transforming the lives of some of the poorest people in Asia, whose worldly possessions a few years ago typically consisted of not much more than one or two sets of clothes, cooking utensils and a thatch-roofed house built by hand. The concerns in the West about the safety of Chinese toys and pet food are largely moot for the people in the remote villages here. As the introduction to global capitalism, Chinese products are met with deep appreciation. “Life is better,” Mr. Khamphao said, “because prices are cheaper.” Chinese television sets and satellite dishes connect villagers to the world. Stereos fill their houses with music. And the Chinese motorcycles often serve as transportation for families.

What a great story! Amid all of the controversy surrounding the “Made in China” crisis, and concerns about the loss of jobs to Chinese factories and China’s growing trade surplus, I found it refreshing to read about one of the positive effects of globalization and China’s development. Many thanks to Thomas Fuller and The New York Times for bringing this story to us."

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