Harley-Davidson Plans China Dealership

Hong Kong Harley riders pause while riding their motorcycles in the streets Hong Kong Sunday, Jan. 8, 2006. For years, Harley-Davidson Inc. has been trying to navigate a maze of regulations to sell its motorcycles in China, to no avail. Riders in its Hong Kong chapter have had to register with authorities and have police escorts as they tour the Chinese countryside. Use of the large bikes have been banned in some urban cores.
For Ray Ma, freedom on the open road means riding his Harley-Davidson motorcycle behind two police cars through the Chinese countryside.

The 53-year-old Hong Kong dental surgeon and members of his 35-bike riding group had to pay $1,290 per bike in escort and paperwork fees last fall to make their trip to Guilin city a reality.

"We have to follow the rules in the place where they have the rules," Ma said. "And I regard that as free."

But Ma said he yearns for the day when he can escape the cramped city for the Chinese mainland without the hassle.

"We really hope that we can ride through the border like anywhere else, like in the States or Canada, or Europe," said Ma. "So that we can just plan a weekend trip, three days and two nights in China. That is really the best for a Hong Kong rider."

For years, iconic motorcycle maker Harley-Davidson Inc. has pushed hard to find ways to sell its motorcycles in China. Now, the Milwaukee-based company says it plans to announce before summer that it will open its first retail outlet in the country since at least World War II.

"Mao said that a thousand-mile journey begins with the first step," said Timothy Hoelter, Harley-Davidson's vice president of government affairs. "I guess we're taking some baby steps already."

The company says there are still major hurdles — some 170 Chinese cities limit or ban motorcycle use or ownership, largely because they are viewed as underpowered, cheap, polluting machines that clog traffic and endanger others.

"We are not encouraging motorcycle use," said Miss Huang, who only gave her surname, a spokeswoman for the police force's Shanghai Public Security Policy Consultation Office.

Motorcycles have been banned from almost all the main streets in Shanghai, Huang said, and the city stopped accepting motorcycle registrations in 2002.

After China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001, import restrictions, quotas and tariffs dropped substantially against foreign motorcycle manufacturers, but municipal traffic ordinances have remained, Hoelter said.

"The problem is although we can now sell our motorcycles in China, the Chinese can't use them, at least if you live in an urban area," he said.

Foreign manufacturing advocates say the policy, while somewhat justified by safety concerns, has created an unfair barrier to access.

Harley-Davidson estimates small Chinese manufacturers build some 17 million motorcycles a year — most for domestic consumption — but most are small and used in rural areas, so they evade many of the restrictions on Harley-style heavyweight bikes. Other bikes such as 1950s-era Chang Jiang 750, which are still used by the Chinese government, are considered three-wheelers because of a sidecar, Hoelter said.

In contrast, BMW, which entered the Chinese motorcycle market in April 2003, said it sold only 70 bikes on the mainland last year.