Musk buys Tesla a throbbing headache in China

Transportation of Tesla cars at its Shanghai factory.
musk buys tesla a throbbing headache in china

Transportation of Tesla cars at its Shanghai factory.

Elon Musk may not care about making money from Twitter. He won’t be the first tycoon to prop up a struggling media outlet in the name of the public good. He says that he supports free speech, and there is no reason to doubt it. But, as with Alibaba’s purchase of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post, there are many hidden risks.

Since the Hong Kong protests sparked a massive Chinese government counterattack on foreign social media, Twitter has removed hundreds of thousands of Chinese accounts and labeled tweets from state media. It stopped accepting publicity from the state-run Xinhua agency and refused to cooperate with Beijing. It also offers critics a global platform from which to attack the government. The new National Security Law explicitly targets seditious speech, including on foreign websites. Twitter, like most foreign media, has not cooperated.

Twitter servers, staff and clients are almost out of Xi Jinping’s reach. But Tesla makes half of its vehicles in Shanghai, where it enjoys tax breaks, and relies on local suppliers for critical components. The Chinese market generates 25% of its sales, as the official The Global Times subtly pointed out after the announcement of the agreement.

It seems likely that the social network, with its new owner, will relax the prohibitions on politics. Trump could get the account back from him. Beijing will also pressure Musk to ease up on his propaganda army, but he is unlikely to stay there. The communist authorities do not share Musk’s free speech values ​​and know how to squeeze. If he’s invited to tea to talk about the fake news spread by dissidents abroad, and he doesn’t take the hint, his business at home may suddenly find itself in the deep end of regulation. But if he cooperates, the US Congress will be the next to call on him.

Unlike Twitter, Tesla is very profitable. Freedom of expression is worth defending, but a piece of moral high ground can be expensive for the automaker’s shareholders.

The authors are columnists for Reuters Breakingviews. The opinions are yours. The translation, by Carlos Gómez Abajo, is the responsibility of Five days

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Brian Adam
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