Elon Musk and China: A Love Story

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3:17 AM HKT, Sun January 13, 2019 2 mins read

Elon Musk was back in China this week, holding a ceremony at the site of his new Gigafactory in Shanghai and going for hotpot in Beijing with maybe ex- maybe not girlfriend Grimes. And that’s not all — it seems like it was a pretty fruitful visit for him all round.

It was just last year that Tesla’s prospects in China were looking grim. The ongoing US-China trade war meant a whopping 40% tariff increase on foreign vehicles and last November, Tesla sold a little over 200 vehicles in China, a 70% decrease from previous months. To stymy their decline in the Chinese market, Tesla was forced to cut prices on vehicles sold in China — naturally shaving a great deal off of their profit margins. To add to this, development of self-automated vehicle software in China was largely dominated by the imposing ride-hailing powerhouse Didi and tech giant Baidu’s Apollo Project.

Well, just months later, Elon Musk is being offered a green card in China by Li Keqiang. In a meeting on Wednesday with the Tesla CEO, the Chinese premier asked about his hopes and expectations for the Chinese government.

“I hope Tesla’s new factory in Shanghai can become an example for the entire nation,” Musk replied. “I ardently love China, and I’m willing to come visit here more often.”

Li replied by offering Musk a Chinese green card — and Musk was understandably touched.


This isn’t the first time Musk has shown his affection for China. In a previous business trip to the country, he was spotted eating jianbing (a common streetfood pancake), and firing off a tweet with a little Mandarin sprinkled in (real Chinese characters, not pinyin). Jianbing plus Chinese characters? We have a true China fan. On this most recent trip, he was even spotted eating the most diplomatic of Chinese meals — hotpot. And in the face of the great “hotpot isn’t that good” controversy, no less.

The recent uptick in China-Elon relations comes during Musk’s visit to the country for the opening ceremony of Tesla’s first-ever Gigafactory outside of the US. The 7.4 million USD (50 billion RMB) factory broke ground in Shanghai on Monday. And Musk seriously wants Chinese engineers to join Tesla — to the point that he’s interested in the idea of a Chinese CEO.

“Somebody who joins today as a junior engineer in Tesla China could one day be CEO of Tesla worldwide,” he said. “They could have my job one day maybe.”

Sure, maybe. Musk’s China fawning isn’t a new thing however — it actually predates the Gigafactories and green cards. In a 2017 interview, Musk praised the Chinese government for its “aggressive” environmental protection efforts, which he claimed far outdid those of the US government. That kind of thing could be one of the factors that allows Tesla to continue expansion in China, despite tariff-related setbacks.


As for the trade war, Musk is confident that it’s a small bump in the road compared to the long-term trends of foreign investment in China. Some sources have even cited Musk’s dealings with China as a new form of international relations — “EV diplomacy.”

Li Keqiang also used the opportunity to remind foreign companies about just how much they’ve benefitted from investing in his country in the past four decades, before turning to Musk’s ambitions specifically: “We hope that your company will seize the opportunity to not only establish your factory in Shanghai as one of the most advanced in the world, but also to adapt to meet localized needs in China, and further enlarge your company’s market.”

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