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BEIJING (AP) — Wu Jianxing's bicycle shop is a rare bright spot in China's SARS-battered economy.

Warned by health experts to avoid crowds, Beijing commuters are shunning buses and subways and switching back to the two-wheeler — the classic transportation of China's 1970s "bicycle armies." Wu says sales at his Dark Horse Bicycle Shop have doubled to 15 cycles a day, and he attributes the rise to fear of SARS.

On Monday, the government said the number of cases of severe acute respiratory syndrome on China's mainland had risen past 5,000, while the death toll reached 252.

World Health Organization experts were in the poor southern region of Guangxi investigating whether the disease have been spread by migrant workers who returned to hometowns there from the neighboring province of Guangdong. Health authorities are trying to stop SARS, still largely an urban disease in China, from spreading to the countryside.

In Beijing, where 129 people have died, schools have shut and the city has closed cinemas and other entertainment businesses. Subways and buses are barely half-full.

Bikes began to proliferate in Beijing in late April, after the Chinese capital disclosed a threefold jump in SARS cases and everyone in the city seemed to put on face masks almost overnight.

Bicycles were long a fixture of life in Beijing, promoted by the Communist Party after the 1949 revolution as a thrifty, egalitarian form of transport. By the late 1970s, nearly every urban Chinese and many in the countryside owned one.

In 1988, at the height of production, China produced 41 million bicycles. Output fell to 27 million by 1997 as incomes rose and Chinese switched to riding buses or even buying their own cars.

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Though Beijing has become choked with cars, city leaders have set aside wide bicycle lanes and parking lots, making the city an easy place to ride.

"I could take the bus, but this is healthier. Now, with SARS I consider it a form of physical preservation," said a Beijing secretary parking her new gray three-speed outside a McDonald's hamburger restaurant. She would only give her surname, Zhang.

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