5 Steps to Prevent Your Bike From Getting Stolen in China

Riding bicycles is practically a national pasttime in China; even as thousands of new cars take to the roads every year, Chengdu is carrying on its pedal-powered tradition well into the new millenium. It’s no wonder either, since riding a bicycle is such a great way to get around the city. Whether you’re hopping up and down curbs on a mountain bike or cruising through gridlocked car traffic in the dedicated bike lane on your road bike, pedalling around town is pivotal to the China experience.

Unfortunately, getting your bike stolen is generally part of the same experience.

Whether you’ve dropped a few grand on a custom fixed gear or you’re pushing a rusty beater, no one likes getting their bike stolen. It’s a terrible feeling; I should know, I’ve had it happen to me four times in five years. But you can benefit from the lessons I’ve learned (read: stolen bikes) by adhereing to these five principles.

#5: Get a Good Lock

This seems obvious but you’d be surprised at how many people go for the cheapest lock, which costs less than 10 yuan. Bicycle thieves love this kind of thriftiness because it means they can break through it in a heartbeat – literally.

China fail bike
Take note: incorrect U-lock usage

You don’t necessarily have to drop a few hundred yuan on a fancy imported lock, but a good quality U-lock is probably your best bet. This should run you about 30 yuan at the bike shops which are ubiquitous across China. When you use it, make sure to use the lock on the frame of the bike, not just the wheel. Because returning to your bike to discover a locked up wheel sucks.

An alternative is the chain-style lock which will work great in combination with your U-lock since both of these locks require separate (and very cumbersome) tools to break through.

#4: Use the Lock, Always

Once you’ve got your lock in order and its key on your keychain, make sure you use it at all times. If you think your bike will be safe for a minute unlocked while you run inside a building to grab something, you are wrong. It’s not safe – not even for a minute.

China is teeming with bike thieves and it makes virtually no difference where you’re located. If people are around, bike thieves are around.

I learned this lesson the hard way when I stepped inside a shop in my neighborhood to pick something up. The proprietor was expecting me and my bike, parked just outside the door, was left unattended for less than 90 seconds. When I emerge from the shop, the bike was nowhere to be found, even after looking in both directions. It was a dumbfounding experience.

#3: Don’t Leave Your Bike Unattended For Long

The longer you go without seeing your bike, the less likely you are to ever see it again. If you go on vacation for a month, leave the bike inside your apartment or with a friend. Once a bike appears to be discarded, thieves will wise up to the fact that the bike has been neglected and it’ll be identified as an easier target with fewer strings attached. Leaving your bike outside of a locked area overnight is really pushing your luck, regardless of where you are. The safest place to keep your ride when it’s not between your legs is in your apartment and as near your person as possible.

#2: Park in the Attended Lots Near Housing Complexes and Shopping Districts

No matter where you’re located in China, you’re bound to be stunned by the sight of hundreds of bikes parked next to eachother in these attended lots. Similarly to how apartment complexes in the West have parking lots for residents, you’re entitled to a space in the shared bike lot outside (or inside) your apartment complex in China. This is a safe place to keep your bike as long as you check on it or ride it a few times a week. Likewise, when you ride down to Carrefour or a shopping district, you’re bound to find a sight just like this:

China bike parking lot
Bike parking areas like this are everywhere across China. Pay a few cents to keep your bike safe.

Here’s how they work: when you arrive you’ll pay the parking fee (which in Chengdu averages 2 jiao, the equivalent of a few cents) and receive two cards on elastic bands, one of which you carry and one which gets affixed onto your handlebars. When you return to pick up your bike you return the two cards which prevents thieves from bringing in a beater and leaving with someone elses’ bicycle. Since these lots are supervised by attendants and you can’t extract any of the bikes easily, parking your bike here will dramatically reduce the chance of it being stolen. Especially if the alternative is locking it up by itself on the street.

#1: Don’t Have a Bike That Looks Expensive

If you buy a rusted bike with a basket on front for 50 yuan, you won’t have to worry too much about your bike getting stolen because thieves don’t stand to make much from its sale. But in the case that you’re comfortable spending some more money getting a bike that’s more comfortable and enjoyable to ride, you can greatly increase your chances of holding onto your bike by making it stand out less.

Essentially it comes down to this: if you think your bike looks great, so do thieves. New bikes are big targets which is why you often hear stories like “My new bike was stolen in the first day/week/month.”

Should you buy a name-brand bike, you can use sandpaper to remove the brand name, or just cover the bike in a new coat of paint. You can affix stickers onto the frame to give it an older appearance (while also hiding the brand of the bike), or you can simply buy a quality bike that’s seen a few years. You’re simultaneously saving money and protecting your investment.

Forever China bike
A “Forever” brand bike which was the Rolls Royce of bicycles in pre-automobile China

Conclusion & Follow-up

Although there’s never a 100% guarantee that you won’t have your bike stolen in China, abiding by these common sense policies will go a long way toward protecting your bicycle from thieves. If you have any stories about bicycle thieves in China or tips on how to hold on to your bike amidst the persistant threat of theft in China, I’d love to hear them.

Note: As expected, the comments have yielded some great tips (thanks Daisy, Zach, Harland, and Maomao):

  • Don’t park a bike outside overnight, ever
  • Lock your bike to something that can’t be moved
  • Get a lock from your home country, it’ll be unfamiliar to thieves

Related Forum Threads

Bike Security

Bicycle Repair

I Tried to Chase Down a Thief One Day

The Cycling Thread

68 thoughts on “5 Steps to Prevent Your Bike From Getting Stolen in China”

  1. Pretty good looking Steelhorse in the photo–
    I am from a bicylce culture of North. Germany where theft is pretty much unheard of
    perhaps a good german lock might do the trick over yonder in China!

  2. 1. Don’t park a bike outside overnight, ever.
    2. Lock your bike to something.
    3. Get a lock from your home country, it’ll be unfamiliar to thieves.
    4. Don’t park a bike outside overnight, ever.

    • Awesome – I hadn’t even thought of the third one. Leaving your bike outside overnight is indeed super risky. I added these to the end of the post!

      Speaking of leaving a bike unattended though, I had a friend once leave his bike parked outside of my door in my apartment building. For those in Chengdu the complex was Wangfu Garden which is a pretty fancypants place to live with elevators and a pool and such, but the bike still got stolen sitting in the hallway just outside my door! You really can’t be too careful.

      • Actually Charlie, the bike at WangFu may not have been stolen, per se. I live in WangFu and the same thing happened to my roommates bike a few months ago.

        It was unlocked outside of our door, and turned up missing. We went to the guards and reported the missing bike, and they said they had discovered that it was unlocked, and put it into storage for safekeeping (without notifying us). The next day the bike was returned. Pretty crooked shit actually…

        • Wow, I don’t think he even thought to report the missing bike to the guards. Glad you posted that tip here though for anyone else who finds themselves in that situation. It struck me as odd that someone who can afford to pay the premium that Wangfu Guarden requires would resort to stealing someone’s bike in the common hallway.

        • The same thing happened to my freind who lives in the 12th Block, near the pool in Wang Fu Garden. She thought it was stolen from outside her door, talked to the gaurds and they gave it back to her. Seems like they’re just trying to keep the place orderly more than anything else.

  3. I once saw a pickup truck pull up to a random corner and park. Two guys jump out and grab what looked like a new e-bike and lift it onto the bed on the back of the truck. They didn’t speak to anyone else or interact with anyone there – matter of fact, no one around even really took notice at all. Before anyone could have even said anything, the truck was gone.

    I can’t guarantee that this was in fact a theft but I’m pretty sure it was since the entire thing happened inside of 30 seconds. Locking your bike to something is super important as a few other commentors have mentioned!

    • A friend of mine describe seeing the exact same thing.

      He said that the thieves were so matter-of-fact about it that it took a second to register exactly what was happening. No one said anything, and by the time he realized what was going on, they were gone.

  4. My rule of thumb is always either park it somewhere where it is being watched by an attendant, or somewhere that you can see it. When Im eating in restaurants, I always take seat where I can see my bike.

    Also, don’t get cheap with the bike attendants. I had a friend who got cheap with one guy because he had just left the bike lot, then he came back for something he left. He didnt want to pay again, so he fought with the attendant, and ended up leaving his bike out side of the bike lot.

    And he ended up walking home…

    • Sucks to be that guy.

      Keeping an eye out always helps. Didn’t you have some kind of confrontation with a would-be thief who was examining your bike while you were seated nearby?

      • Yeah, at Subway across from BaiLian TianFu Mall. I was sitting about 15 feet from the bike when it happened, and I was glancing up at it habitually from inside Subway where I was eating my toasted classic italian bmt.

        I popped up and rushed outside when I saw his hand on the lock, and I wish I had punched him immediately because after I confronted him there was an awkward 2-3 seconds where I was berating him and he was fishing in his pocket to pull out a small knife, which he fumbled with getting open. Once the knife was out, the vigilante window closed for me and I just stood there angrily while he squeezed on to his electric scooter with his two scrawny friends and cruised across the mall plaza.

          • Changed.

            Although it almost seemed appropriately awkward describing a 90lb would-be thief fumbling with a pocket knife that surely wouldn’t have done much but drive you to hospitalize him. I’m sure the temptation to punish someone who intended to steal your property in front of you must have been tempting, but it’s a good thing you managed to avoid both violence and getting the bike stolen.

  5. If you cannot get a lock from your home country, at least get one from a different city. Bike Thieves in any given city “acquire” master keys that fit most locks sold in that particular city.

    • Is it logistically feasible for bike locks to be produced locally and made different for other regions? I’ve been working on the assumption that locks are produced in mass on the east coast in cities like Shenzhen: is that incorrect?

      Thanks for commenting Yokie.

    • True! They’re about to get more expensive, though. Word on the street (in taxis) is that the standard fare will raise by at least 2 yuan across the line, for all times of day and taxi types.

      Also the pleasure of riding around the city on a bike is really paramount and for me is much more of a draw than the economical aspect.

  6. I remember the first time I bought a bike in Chengdu 6 years ago, which was a second hand bike bought it from Jiuyan bridge. At that time there were huge groups of people selling stolen bikes. Police didnt care about them at all. Everyone in Chengdu knew that was the big bike market. You can get a very nice bike with a cheap price. After 3 or 4 years police started to manage the Jiuyan bridge area so people couldn’t show the bikes outside on the street. They still sell stolen bike, but if you want to buy you have to go into their house. All bike were inside and it was a little scary when we went to buy bikes another time. Police were outside staying and watching and the sellers were very careful. Sneaky, whispering to us, taking us to a place which was hiding in a bad looking building. It felt like doing a drug deal.

    • I’m glad you mentioned that. The process of buying a second hand (stolen) bike is really a crazy process as you say. The last time I went there (to Jiuyan Bridge, which is notorious for being a haven for stolen bicycles) I got stuck inside some guys house while police searched outside. He was like “Just sit here, don’t say anything, cops are outside!”. I’m sitting there on this guys bed amidst his laundry hanging up to dry in the middle of the room and there’s like 6 bikes parked on the side of the room. Bizarre experience!

      I’d like to go in there sometime with a video camera although I’m not sure they’d appreciate that much. Buying a bike from that market would be a great topic for a followup post though since it’s directly related to the stolen bike economy.

      • You should DEFINITELY go in there with a hidden camera! That would be a great video. Its hard to convey the griminess of that place without images. Its like a favela or something.

        • True, true. They’re more or less living in total squalor in leaky shanties. Definitely feels like what I imagine favelas in Brazil or slums in India to be like.

          I’ll look into the hidden camera. I have an idea.

  7. If you do not have the bike parked in the designated locations, they will drive you moved over, or just watch it was stolen.
    In Chengdu, at go to work time the road is very crowded ,and many streets are one-way street, some junctions can not turn left or right, so riding a bike convenient
    i am lose 8 bike the 7 years in chengdu.

  8. I had a bike stolen recently. 🙁

    Wish I had seen this post beforehand. My problem was I left it parked outside an attended lot, on the street in Chongqing.

  9. Is it worth spending a lot of money on a lock? How much should I spend on a U-Lock, for example? I see some of them for sale for 10 yuan and others go up to 80 but there doesn’t seem to be a discernible difference between them.

  10. You can only prevent your bike from getting stolen in China for so long, it seems. But being able to buy bikes for dirt cheap balances it out, imo.

  11. I’m a little late to the party, but one tip I have is to use a combination lock. While plenty of thieves are armed with bolt-cutters or hacksaws, those only really work when the thief can take his time. Most of the locks are simply picked using skeleton keys, something that doesn’t work with a good combo lock.

    • Do you know how the skeleton keys work? Are there certain types of lock that are less safe? One commenter recommended buying locks from another country, but aren’t many of those manufactured in China anyway?

      • I don’t know which ones the skeleton keys are out for, but you can assume they have them for all the cheap ones. It’s also safe to assume that just about any lock was made in China.

        On the other hand, combo locks don’t have a keyhole, so you can’t pick them.

  12. Some thieves will break ANY Chinese solid U-lock in 5/10 secs with liquid nitrogen gas in spray.

    ADD A CABLE (with different key shape) covered in plastic, add different types of devices to delay them.

    FOLLOWING the author advises + having 3/5 different locks, having rust, dust, impacts, broken/missing parts, don’t park @ same place twice, park next of better looking bikes less protected, will help.

    Doing all that & more, if they want it, they’ll take it, u can only delay them 🙁

    Some foreign made U-lock with integrated alarm 120db will surprise them also, some are nitrogen resistant, drill resistant… Very expensive.

    Best links if u got cash:



    They still can put it in the truck if u don’t lock to something heavy & hard…

    • I know that there’s no 100% way to prevent theft, and that the best strategy is delay, but that sounds like a whole lot of trouble to go to for a bike. If I had a bike worth that much to me, I’d simply keep it at home except for long-distance, out of town trips.

      I just use a combo chain lock and never park it in an unattended spot. In ten years riding in China, the only time I lost a bike was when I lent it to someone.

  13. I was in a few bike shops in NY last week, and most were carrying a variety of Kryptonite brand locks; the largest variety had a chain not much smaller than a boat-anchor variety; literally the metal links were about as thick as my thumb, and the thing must have weighed 15+kg with a Kryptonite u-lock. Then again when they come with a $3500 bike theft guarantee. When we chuckled about the sized of them the clerk commented ¨That´s New York…¨

    In Shanghai here my wife and I usually leave home with 3 locks for our giant bikes, being sure to lock the wheels, etc. I always remove the quick release saddle, and – having learned the hard way – the metal clamp that holds the saddle; one of our first outings with our new bikes we had everything locked and saddles removed, only to come back to find that someone had removed the quick release seat clamp that I had thought was bonded to the frame… apparently not. That was a long 1 hour ride home standing up the whole way.

    • Me too. I definitely won’t spend more than 200-300 yuan on a bike now. I bought a used Giant from the Forum on here a few months ago for 150 yuan and it’s been working great.

  14. A good alternative for a bike, which ive seen several international students riding on is a electric scooter. Its pretty convenient and maybe harder too steal (weight, no spare parts)

    • Good point, scooter seems much more difficult to steal because of the size and weight alone. Convenient in the summer time because you don’t show up at your destination drenched in sweat.

      Some foreigners aren’t too proud of riding them around, though. I thought it made an interesting topic for a potential post: navigating the city on an e-bike. But my friend who got one recently didn’t want to publicize the fact that he rode an electric bike around because he thought it was kind of emasculating. Hah

  15. HAHAHA Emasculating, damn haha. Im sorry haha I had to look up that word but its hilarious haha. Yeah well, you’re in China, so I guess no one cares…

  16. One technique that actually works is to import a U-lock that emits a high frequency tone when it’s disturbed. This will scare the hell out of would-be thieves since these kind of locks are virtually non-existant in China. You’ll pay $40+ dollars for a lock like this but I don’t see that getting stolen easily.

  17. I had an old flying pigeon when I was beijing and nobody stole it, plus it was the most comfortable damn bike I’ve ever ridden.
    My advice is buy an unfashionable bike (such as a flying pigeon) and you’ll be fine. (and even if someone still steals it, you’ll be able to pick up another for not much)

  18. Good story. I have a pretty good (2000 kuai) bike which i ride daily. I carry it up the 7 floors to my apartment, never leave it downstairs. My school lets me leave it in their office. One thing about locks: don’t go for a u-lock with a plastic casing, metal is better. I have a 200 kuai Trek lock, but as the salesman replied “Listen, if they wanna take it, NOTHING stops them”. I actually use two locks, just to disuade the thief, and posiibly buy you one or two minutes of precious time. Oh BTW: 9 years in CD, 7 bikes stolen. About average i guess…

  19. 5 years in China, 7 bikes stolen All of them over 2000 kuai One was a bike I built myself and was stolen after a week. It is so true, if they want it, they will get it. I now keep my bike with me at all times unless it is in a bike park with an attendent.

    I don’t want to be that guy, but you shouldn’t buy bikes from the stolen bike market. Feeding the market just means that you are creating the market for stolen bikes.

    • You built a bike and got it stolen a week later? That must have hurt, bad. I had a friend buy a bike a pair of bikes for 4,000+ for him and his girlfriend. At the time I really questioned the reasoning, considering the chance of them getting stolen eventually was over 90%. They held onto them for a few months.

      Buying from the stolen bike market does bring up some questions of ethics, no doubt. With some things in China I refuse to conform to the local norm for ethical reasons – throwing trash on the street is one. No matter how many people I see do that, it won’t ever be me.

      With bikes though, if it came down to buying a new bike for 1,000+ yuan or not riding at all, it wouldn’t be an easy decision to make. Over the years I’ve been mostly buying bikes which I know have been stolen, but it’s almost like I don’t totally consider it mine since I know it’ll get passed onto someone else before long. This involuntary bicycle exchange system seems to just be the way it works here. Unfortunately the only beneficiaries are the stolen bike vendors.

  20. Tip 1# is the best bet. Don’t own a bike that looks expensive. My bicycle, for example, looks dirt cheap and it hasn’t been stolen yet, although I keep hoping. Even Sichuan farmers wouldn’t be caught dead on my bike. For starters, it has one of those gigantic front tires that bicycles used to have in the 1800s when cyclists wore top hats and tails. You need an upsy-daisy just to get into the saddle (which is embarrassing to ask for) and if you fall your best bet is to aim for some sacks of rice or a fruit vendor’s stand, like in a 1930s Shanghai gangster film. Last week, I crashed through a paper window and landed on an opium couch. Thank God! It’s a good thing the bicycle came with training wheels. I just wish the manufacturers had excluded the Hello Kitty Basket. The bike’s worst feature, though, is the seat, or rather, the lack of one. Instead of a padded seat, my bicycle has the dildo from the movie thriller “Seven” affixed in an upright position so that it is aligned perfectly with a cyclist’s anus should he/she be so misfortunate to sit down. Also, the chain keeps slipping which causes me to fall forward and wrack my nuts on the steel crossbar whenever I pedal too hard. The upshot is that my bicycle has never stolen. Of course, I also follow the other 4 preventive steps you mentioned, just to be on the safe side.

  21. Just lost my second new bike here in Qingdao. Owned this one 3 days and the other about a week. Your column helped calm me down thanks. I actually wanted to find and seriously hurt whoever took it the first time. I’m not going to stop riding but definately am going to get a cheaper bike this time.

    Especially like the comment from Charlie “…it’s almost like I don’t totally consider it mine since I know it’ll get passed onto someone else before long. This involuntary bicycle exchange system seems to just be the way it works here.” Hopefully this will call me down next time when my cheaper bike is stolen… 😉

    • I know exactly how you feel, Kyle. I went through the same thing several times, twice having a bike stolen from within several feet of me and feeling incredible anger afterwards. Don’t spend too much on a bike unless you’re willing to be totally vigilant about it at all times!

  22. I just bought an electric scooter 2 nights ago, and I am studying at uni living in dorm . I saved up so long for this and some asshole steals it.
    Caught him on camera in the police station, filed a report.
    I just want to let other people know, find a secure place before even purchasing the bike like a bike shelter where it can be safe.


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