Elon Musk is walking on eggshells in China.
The billionaire chief executive of Tesla (TSLA) defines himself as one of the most ardent defenders of free speech. He’d said that protecting free speech was one reason he bid $44 billion for microblogging website Twitter (TWTR) .
(He has withdrawn the proposal, but the platform is fighting him, and a trial is scheduled for mid-October.)
At the same time, Beijing is regularly criticized for its censorship and control of all dissent. How to reconcile these two opposite approaches?
This is the balancing act Musk must execute. China is a key market for Tesla as it seeks to dominate the global electric-vehicle market. Tesla is currently the industry leader in production and sales of EVs.
Musk Writes an Article for a Magazine Run by China’s Chief Censor
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Musk seems to have determined not to alienate the Chinese authorities, a decision that often earns him criticism. It goes without saying, then, that he’ll take flak for writing an article for China Cyberspace Magazine, which is run by the Cyberspace Administration of China, the country’s internet regulator and censor.
As an example of the agency’s purview, In April 2021, according to Reuters, the CAC launched a hotline to report any online comments made against the Chinese Communist Party.
Musk’s op-ed column also comes as tension between the U.S. and China are high due to the visits of American lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, to Taiwan.
In this article, published in the July edition of the magazine, Musk sets out his vision for the future: that of a world in which technology will help ensure the future of humanity.
The column, headlined “Believing in Technology for a Better Future,” was translated into English by Yang Liu, a journalist for the Chinese state press agency, Xinhua. The journalist posted it on his Substack newsletter, Beijing Channel. You can read it here.
Musk explains that the magazine proposed that he write the piece. In other words, it wasn’t his initiative. The tech titan also seems to say that he was put in a difficult position and could not deliberately refuse, at the risk of alienating the Chinese authorities.
“Thank you for the invitation from China Cyberspace magazine. I am pleased to share with my Chinese friends some of my thoughts on the vision of technology and humanity,” the world’s richest man said.
Tesla owns a factory in Shanghai. This factory is key to the EV maker’s global ambitions. Its temporary closure in March and April due to a lockdown surely hurt Tesla’s production and deliveries.
In a sign of its importance, Musk in August celebrated the millionth vehicle out of this factory with a tweet: “Congrats Giga Shanghai on making millionth car! Total Teslas made now over 3M.”
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Before Musk, Zuckerberg Had Also Courted Beijing
Musk is not the first CEO of an American multinational to take strong steps to avoid alienating Beijing. Mark Zuckerberg, CEO of social-media giant Meta Platforms (META) (Facebook, WhatsApp and Instagram), and Sundar Pichai, CEO of Alphabet (Google) (GOOGL) , have tried this balancing act in the past.
A few years ago, when Facebook was aggressively expanding worldwide, Zuckerberg made China his No. 1 priority. The Chinese authorities in 2009 had banned the social network and Zuckerberg wanted to lift that ban.
Getting back into the Chinese market was a golden opportunity for Facebook. Zuckerberg thus multiplied his efforts to establish ties with Beijing. For example, he gave a speech in Mandarin at Tsinghua University in 2015.
He was proud to make clear that he reads Chinese literature.
But despite his efforts, the Chinese market has remained closed to Facebook, and Zuckerberg since has become one of the strongest critics of Chinese censorship.
“I want to do everything we can to maximize the use of technology to help achieve a better future for humanity,” Musk wrote in his column. “To that end, any area that contributes to a sustainable future is worthy of our investment.”
“Whether it’s Tesla, Neuralink, or SpaceX, these companies were all founded with the ultimate goal of enhancing the future of human life and creating as much practical value for the world as possible — Tesla to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, Neuralink for medical rehabilitation, SpaceX for making interstellar connections possible.”
The entrepreneur then detailed the different objectives and ambitions of his companies.
“Electrified transportation. Full electrification of transportation, including cars, planes, and ships. Electric rockets may be more difficult, but we may be able to manufacture the propellant used in rockets from sustainable energy sources. Eventually, the world economy will be run entirely by sustainable energy sources.”
Musk Open to Chinese Partnerships
Musk also touts Tesla’s progress in developing humanoid robots and confirms that Tesla intends to launch the first of these bots this year.
“Thereafter, humanoid robots’ usefulness will increase yearly as production scales up and costs fall. In the future, a home robot may be cheaper than a car. Perhaps in less than a decade, people will be able to buy a robot for their parents as a birthday gift,” the billionaire said.
He then repeated one of his great dreams: to conquer Mars.
“In the future, we plan to build at least 1,000 Starships to send groups of pioneers to Mars to build a self-sustaining city,” Musk wrote.
He ends the piece by saying he is open to partnerships with Chinese entities:
“I hope more people will join us in our fight to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy. I also welcome more like-minded Chinese partners to join us in exploring clean energy, artificial intelligence, human-machine collaboration, and space exploration to create a future worth waiting for.”
In the same July issue, there are also columns from local CEOs including Eric Jing, chairman of Ant Group.