China gives Elon Musk a hero’s welcome — and a message for the U.S.

By Christian Shepherd and Meaghan Tobin
with Mikhail Klimentov

China would like more American executives like Elon Musk, please.

During a whirlwind 44 hours in Beijing and Shanghai, the Tesla and Twitter CEO was celebrated by Chinese Communist Party commentators as an ally opposing a perceived American campaign to separate the world’s two largest economies.

“Decoupling from China means decoupling from opportunity, decoupling from the future,” wrote Xiake Dao, a blog affiliated with the People’s Daily, the party’s official newspaper. “Even if the White House agrees with arguments for decoupling, the Musks [of the world] will not agree.”

Musk, making his first trip to China in three years, apparently felt the same (even though Twitter is blocked in China and Musk did not tweet while in the country). He told the foreign minister that China and the United States were “conjoined twins” with inseparable interests, according to Chinese readouts. The trip has been a propaganda win for Beijing’s intensifying campaign to signal openness to foreign investment after months of unpredictable, politically motivated crackdowns stoked fears that the business environment was worsening.

So far, China’s promises haven’t quelled international corporations’ alarm over an updated counterespionage law and raids on global consulting firms in recent weeks, during which employees were detained in at least one of them. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has warned that “China’s stated policy of openness and desire to attract new foreign investment and exports” from the United States is not without risk. But Beijing is rolling out the red carpet for visiting American executives — and not just Musk.

JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan have also been in the Chinese capital this week, shoring up their own business interests at the same time as Beijing tries to woo the American business lobby, which has traditionally opposed Washington’s more hawkish China policies.

Musk’s itinerary included all the usual flourishes of China’s hospitality — lavish dinners and meetings with senior officials — as well as a touch more geopolitics than is usual for an executive. On arriving in Beijing on Tuesday, he went directly to a meeting with Qin Gang, China’s foreign minister and former ambassador to the United States. In a room usually reserved for meeting diplomatic counterparts, Qin pledged open markets for businesses from all countries and then deployed a string of car metaphors to urge a positive turn in Chinese-U.S. ties.

Progress requires “holding on to the steering wheel,” avoiding “dangerous driving” by “stepping on the brakes” when necessary and “putting the pedal to the metal” when appropriate to “promote mutually beneficial cooperation,” he said.

Musk also met with the ministers of commerce and information technology in Beijing, which pumped up the Tesla’s stock price as analysts predicted that the trip would help the electric carmaker weather intense competition from local rivals. The red-carpet treatment continued with a welcome banquet attended by the chairman of China’s leading battery manufacturer, CATL, and a dinner theme of “Horse-Extraordinary.” It was a pun on the first character of Musk’s Chinese surname — ma, meaning horse.

The menu was fit for a king — as Musk reclaimed his position Thursday as richest person in the world, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires Index. Guests were served 16 dishes with intriguingly translated English names like “Dendeobium and Jellyfish Head in Seafood Sauce,” “Stim-fried Lily and Luffa,” and “Laotan Pickled Cabbage Geoduck,” according to pictures of the menu that circulated widely on Weibo, the country’s answer to Twitter.

Musk was also greeted with cheers and applause — and even a few heart-shaped hand gestures — when he paid a late-night visit to Tesla’s Gigafactory in Shanghai.

Even with the showy reception, no new deals were announced during the trip, and a rumored meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who as former Shanghai Communist Party boss was instrumental in allowing Tesla to set up a factory in China, never materialized.

Tesla has been credited with igniting Chinese consumer interest in electric cars with the opening of its Shanghai factory in 2019, deepening competition among dozens of Chinese rivals and sparking a wave of sales that surpassed government targets last year for electric vehicle penetration. But Tesla has had to repeatedly cut prices in China as Warren Buffett-backed rival BYD became the best-selling electric vehicle brand in the world and the top overall auto brand in China by sales.

In Beijing on Tuesday, Musk said he was willing to expand his business in China. In April, Tesla announced plans for a new factory that will produce its Megapack energy storage system in Shanghai. But a planned expansion, which would have boosted the output of the existing vehicle factory, remains uncertain amid rising inventories, price cuts and reported concerns in Beijing over Tesla’s connections to satellite internet service Starlink, another Musk venture.

Source: Washington Post


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