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Youth Revolt Against China’s Crackdown on E-Bikes, Switch to Unregulated Electric Wheelchairs

Published: July 12, 2023
A man uses his mobile phone on his electric bicycle in Beijing on July 19, 2022. (Image: WANG ZHAO/AFP via Getty Images)

Amidst a crackdown by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) on electric bicycles (e-bikes) in many regions of mainland China, a peculiar trend has emerged. Mainlanders, particularly youth, are dropping their heavily regulated e-bikes for an unlikely alternative, unregulated electric wheelchairs. 

In 2021 there were an estimated 300 million e-bikes in the country with tens of millions more expected to have been sold after a surge in sales following the lifting of COVID-19 restrictions. They are a popular mode of transportation in China as they are affordable and maneuver well on China’s busy streets. E-bikes, as a form of transportation in the country, are second only to automobiles. 

In Shenzhen, a first-tier city in China’s Guangdong province for example, there are an estimated one million e-bikes currently on the road. 

However, videos have emerged online of seemingly healthy, able-bodied youths roaming the streets of Guangzhou, a city in southern China, on electric wheelchairs.

China’s crackdown on e-bikes was rolled out as early as 2016 when communist authorities claimed that over the span of a year 113 people were killed and 21,423 people were injured in e-bike accidents, accounting for 37 percent of all traffic injuries.

However, many believe the CCP’s true motive is to boost the struggling new energy vehicle or electric vehicle (EV) industry in the country and to fill cash strapped municipal coffers with fines levied against e-bike riders. 


A penalty economy

The crackdown has created what mainlanders refer to as a “penalty economy,” where local municipalities levy fines on e-bike riders to fill their coffers.

For example, according to an article, published by mainland media outlet Caijing Magazine, in the city of Wuzhou in Guangxi province 29.8 percent of the city’s revenue came from fines in 2022.

Fines can be levied for a variety of reasons including modifying an e-bike by installing a rear-view mirror or basket, breaking one of China’s ambiguous traffic laws, driving without a license, riding with one hand or failing to dismount at a crosswalk, all under the banner of “rectifying traffic.” 

On China’s popular video streaming apps, Douyin and Bilibili, there are numerous videos posted by disgruntled youth complaining about being fined several times a week for various infractions. Riders are fined anywhere between tens to hundreds of yuan for each infraction.

Regulations are different depending on where you are in China. In the province of Henan for example, several cities completely banned e-bikes in April this year. 

While e-bikes are heavily regulated, electric wheelchairs have no regulation, making them a perfect alternative for individuals who want to get around but are tired of paying the fines. 

A Beijing-based lawyer recently told a mainland media outlet that healthy people have the right to ride electric wheelchairs as long as they don’t cause an obstruction to other people and are not breaking the law. 

Only wheelchairs that use petrol fuel are regulated, bound by traffic regulations and require registration in the country.

According to another mainland media outlet, sales of electric wheelchairs have surged 60 percent in the first half of 2023, with wheelchairs costing around 3,000 yuan or US$560.00.


Soft confrontation

Many interpret the trend as a form of protest or a “soft confrontation.”

On Douyin, the Chinese version of TikTok, one commenter said, “They’re not disabled, but were forced to become disabled,” and another said, “This is also an extreme show of sarcasm to the administration.”

Some e-bike riders have taken to social media calling for protests in the thousands, however these calls to protest were met with immediate “official stabilization” by authorities and never emerged. 

Meanwhile, authorities continue to crackdown on e-bikes, levying fines and in many cases confiscating e-bikes.

“Someone had another accident,” one mainlander from Guangzhou said in a YouTube video published on July 4, adding that, “Recently, Guangzhou’s electric bike scene has been really crazy. A friend of mine who works as a delivery driver parked his bike on the side of the road last night and woke up to find his e-bike gone with locks cut up on the ground.”

Initially, it was believed the bike was stolen but, it turned out authorities had confiscated the bike overnight.