Elon Musk is more China’s darling than the right’s

Elon Musk, wearing a black t shirt over a white collared shirt, poses between two Tesla owners in Tesla's Shanghai factory.
Ding Ting/Xinhua via AP
In this photo released by China’s Xinhua News Agency, Tesla CEO Elon Musk, center, poses with Tesla owners at a delivery ceremony for the first Tesla Model 3 cars made at Tesla’s Shanghai factory in Shanghai, Tuesday, Jan. 7, 2020.

Twitter exchange that transpired between Elon Musk and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez (D-N.Y.) has rallied conservative punditry behind Elon Musk, crowning him with the title of “leader of free speech.” They are certainly setting themselves up for disappointment.   

Musk is no different than the progressive CEOs in America who champion progressive causes and even go to the extreme of advocating the boycott of states in America but look the other way for the same cause in China. While Musk’s audience and fan base lean more to the opposite end of the spectrum and his advocacy work proclaims to take on the “wokeism” that has allegedly become a part and parcel of 21st-century discourse, when it comes to China, Musk is not that different from his progressive peers in tech.   

Musk went on to tweet an image that characterized the average liberal as having left the center of the political spectrum to move farther to the left and the right had not moved at all.   His nonchalant behavior, such as smoking marijuana on a live videocast with Joe Rogan and criticism of the left moving the goal post may resonate with certain groups of conservatives such as libertarians. However, his bravado and style have geographical restrictions.  If the old saying goes “when in Rome do as the Romans do,” Musk takes that to a different level by dancing to the tune of the Chinese Communist Party.   China is Tesla’s second-largest market and the company has gone through hoops and bounds to successfully establish its presence in the market. Attracted by its sheer market size, and the lack of peer competition, Tesla entered the market by procuring locally and setting up contracts with local manufacturers — essentially creating the cluster and ecosystem required for electric vehicle (EV) manufacturing. While this has proven to be a strategy of digging their own grave that lays out the foundation for Chinese EV companies to take advantage of, Musk remains bullish on the Chinese market.      

The founder and CEO of Amazon, Jeff Bezos, discussed Musk’s China links by tweeting “Interesting question. Did the Chinese government just gain a bit of leverage over the town square?” and responding to his own tweet — “My own answer to this question is probably not. The more likely outcome in this regard is complexity in China for Tesla, rather than censorship at Twitter.” But we’ll see. Musk is extremely good at navigating this kind of complexity.”  If Bezos’s Amazon procures a large number of goods from China, Musk’s Tesla is highly reliant on the Chinese market for its growth. And this conflict of interest can impact the billionaires themselves. A case in point is Bezos, who personally faced retaliation from Saudi Arabia for Washington Post’s late columnist Jamal Khashoggi’s insightful reporting about the kingdom.    

As Batya Sargon of Newsweek put it in her interview on the “Matt Lewis and the News” podcast, China is not just about foreign policy but about domestic issues such as workers’ rights, trade and industrial policy. She went on to characterize Musk as a stooge of China.   

One does not have to go that far. But it is certainly worth pondering if China will have leverage over Musk. China is their second-largest market and with that comes certain kowtowing as requirements. This can be in the form of excluding Taiwan as a country on all maps (Marriott), overlooking the widespread suicide of workers (Apple), staying mum to slave labor in Xinjiang (Intel) and channeling much-needed capital and investment to Shenzhen and Guangzhou over towns in Ohio and Pennsylvania (BlackRock).   

It is to be seen whether the CCP will have that kind of leverage over Musk or if it will wield its market power to influence his politics at home. One hopes that Vladimir Lenin was wrong when he said “the Capitalists will sell us the rope with which we will hang them”   

American capitalists need to reflect on who they are getting in bed with.   

It is unfortunate that another billionaire with strong ties and links to China is taking control over another modern town square. While conservatives and the far-right have been excited and celebrating Musk’s opposition to progressives such as Ocasio-Cortez, it is premature to celebrate Musk’s planned acquisition of Twitter. Ocasio-Cortez and Rep. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) have criticized both the Trump and Biden administrations for creating a new Cold War-like situation with China and have advocated for a more restrained approach. Musk may not be opposed to that after all. America taking a conciliatory approach to the CCP will benefit American corporations that covet the Chinese market.       

Twitter cannot be discounted as a powerful social media platform. As we have witnessed the world over, it is a platform that triggers protests, riots and even violence. It also initiates discussions beyond the social media platform — even this article was inspired by tweets and their responses. We are living in a world where 280 characters can lead to widespread violence or be instruments for positive change. 

That said, let’s face it: Polarization in domestic politics and the culture wars take away from the much-needed debate and attention to the challenge of our times — China’s ascent to the global pecking order.

Akhil Ramesh is a fellow with the Pacific Forum. He has worked with governments, risk consulting firms and think tanks in the United States and India. Follow him on Twitter: Akhil_oldsoul. 

Tags Alexandria Ocasio Cortez Criticism of Tesla, Inc. Elon Musk Elon Musk Twitter takeover Ilhan Omar Jeff Bezos Politics of the United States Tesla

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