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BEIJING (Reuters Life!) - China's vast population of battery-powered bikes is the focus of uproar after new rules ignited public fears, and hopes among some, that these pack mules of the nation's economic boom could be run off the road.
China's image as the land of the bicycle has been fading as its rising wealth has boosted ownership of cars and, for the less well-heeled, "e-bikes": bicycles with battery-powered motors as well as small pedals to distinguish them from motorbikes.
But the spread of the e-bike has struck a policy pothole after the national standards agency issued rules threatening to rein in the bigger models, favored by traders and couriers hauling loads.
The Standardisation Administration of China resurrected 10-year-old rules saying that electric bikes weighing over 40 kg or able to go faster than 20 km (12.4 miles) per hour should count as motorbikes, and suggesting riders of such bikes would need the licenses they had long done without.
A week of public debate, industry lobbying and media reports ensued about the potentially costly licenses and possibility that bigger e-bikes would be priced out of the market.
Last week, faced with growing clamor, the administration issued a statement on its website (www.sac.gov.cn) repeating the rules, but it also said it was up to province and city governments to decide how to enforce any registration demands.
The debate has revealed a nation divided between love and hate for electric bikes -- and consumers and businesses who increasingly feel they should have a say in government rules about what they can buy and make.
China's ruling Communist Party keeps a tight lid on public discussion of politics. But in consumer rights and other less sensitive areas, citizens and industry groups are becoming bolder, a trend echoed in the e-bike debate.
"Maybe the government likes to meddle in other people's business so much that it invented such stupid, unreasonable rules", said Zhao Lijun, a beefy 47-year-old deliveryman using his electric bike to deliver meat and vegetables to restaurants.
"I'm almost in my 50s, and my physical strength is far from enough for me to ride a pedal bicycle the whole day."
More than public feeling is at stake. China has nearly 2,000 manufacturers allowed to make e-bikes and they have been producing 21 million each year, said an official at the bicycle industry association, which represents many manufacturers.
The bike batteries also drive much lead demand.
E-bikes usually jostle with pedal-power bikes in special lanes on city streets. Riders also mount sidewalks, and in the eyes of harried residents, the e-bikes can be quietly menacing missiles of steel, lead and rubber.
Many Chinese cities, including Beijing, ban or strictly limit motorbikes, and restrict the size of e-bikes. But in the free-for-all of urban Chinese traffic, it is not uncommon to see speeding e-bikes in spills and head-on collisions.
"They are even not licensed, the electric bikes," said Wang Fuhe, a Beijing taxi driver. "So they have nothing to fear. They hit pedestrians and cars then run away, barely traceable."
E-bike makers have denounced the rules as a move to protect motorcycle makers and state-owned companies whose business has been crimped, Chinese newspapers have reported. Local industry groups have demanded public hearings, the reports have said.
"Virtually all of the manufacturers of electric bikes are private businesses," said Gong Xiaoyan, head of the e-bike industry association of Tianjin, a port city near Beijing, according to the Chinese-language 21st Century Business Herald.
"This standard will push these small and medium-sized businesses to the brink of extinction," he said. "Clearly that is at odds with the government's demands for social stability."
But making and discarding the bulky rechargeable batteries are environmental worries, said Robert Earley, who works for the Innovation Center for Energy and Transportation in Beijing, a group encouraging green transport. Few bikes come with lighter, cleaner lithium batteries.
"The bikes use lead-acid batteries that weigh about 4 or 5 kilos each. You multiply that by 21 million and that's an awful lot of lead," he said.
"I don't think China has the social infrastructure to administer rules like this," he said. "But it could be a way to slow down the industry until technology catches up".
Additional reporting by Huang Yan and Yu Le; Editing by Nick Macfie and Miral Fahmy