China's jaded techies find a hero in Elon Musk

People in China have marvelled at the way Elon Musk handled the country's hard-nosed authorities.
People in China have marvelled at the way Elon Musk handled the country's hard-nosed authorities.PHOTO: AFP

NEW YORK (NYTIMES) - China is having its "techlash" moment. The country's Internet giants, once celebrated as engines of economic vitality, are now scorned for exploiting user data, abusing workers and squelching innovation.

Mr Jack Ma, co-founder of e-commerce titan Alibaba, is a fallen idol, with his companies under government scrutiny for the ways they have secured their grip over the world's second-largest economy.

But there is one tech figure who has managed to keep the Chinese public in his thrall, whose mix of impish bomb-throwing and captain-of-industry bravado seems tailor-made for this time of dashed dreams and disillusionment: Elon Musk.

"He can fight the establishment and become the richest man on earth - and avoid getting beaten down in the process," said Ms Jane Zhang, founder and chief executive of ShellPay, a Shanghai blockchain firm. "He's everybody's hope."

Whether out of hope, envy or morbid curiosity - like spectators hoping to see one of his rockets go down in a fiery blast - China cannot get enough of Mr Musk.

His company Tesla's electric cars are big sellers in the country, and the government's growing space ambitions have spawned a community of fans who track every launch of his SpaceX.

Social platforms brim with videos and articles pondering whether the South Africa-born billionaire is a trailblazer or a fraud, and examining everything from his upbringing to his taste in Beijing hot pot joints.

Start-up founders swear by his belief in "first-principles thinking", which looks for solutions by examining problems at their most fundamental level.

A stack of books by Chinese authors promises to reveal the secrets of the "Silicon Valley Iron Man", which is the nickname that seems to have stuck in China.

In a long thread about Mr Musk on question-and-answer site Zhihu, a user named Moonshake wrote that most people start out full of hope but gradually accept the "mediocrity" that is their fate.

"Only a superman like Musk can move past the endless mediocrity and towards the infinite, to see the magnificence of the universe," Moonshake wrote.

Another user in the same thread said he named his son Elon to express his admiration.

Tesla's giant factory near Shanghai started production in 2019 and helped ramp up the company's manufacturing capacity.

When Tesla's share price hit a new high in January, making Mr Musk the planet's wealthiest man, Chinese fans claimed credit. (Mr Musk's reaction to the news - "Well, back to work..." - was liked 22,000 times on Chinese social media platform Weibo.)

Later that month, as Mr Musk endorsed the run-up in GameStop shares, many in China were riveted, drawn to the drama by the same distrust of big financial institutions.


A man walks by Tesla Model 3 sedans and Tesla Model X sport utility vehicle at a Tesla showroom in Shanghai, on May 8, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

"Occupy Wall Street could never be copied in China," said Mr Yan Suji, an entrepreneur and investor in Shanghai. To do that, "you'd have go on the streets", he said. Buying protest stocks is safer.

The dispiritedness that many Chinese technology workers have for their industry is compounded by their feeling that it is no longer really inventing or innovating.

While Mr Musk is off building futuristic cars and colonising the cosmos, they see the best minds of their generation designing cellphone games, figuring out how to put more advertisements on social media and speculating in real estate. "China doesn't have Silicon Valley madmen any more," Mr Yan said. Tech bosses "have all become cardboard cut-outs", and investors will not touch ideas that seem remotely "crazy".

Mr Musk's acolytes are a passionate bunch everywhere. But in China, his popularity is helped by the authoritarian government's embrace of Tesla - and vice versa - when the United States and China have never trusted each other's high-tech companies less.

Mr Musk has praised the intelligence of the Chinese officials he met while preparing to open the Shanghai factory. The company, in a first for a foreign carmaker in China, has been allowed to run its plant without a local partner.

People in China have marvelled at the way Mr Musk handled the country's hard-nosed authorities.

They have been more critical of the ways he has sometimes treated his own workers.

He lashed out last year at Californian health officials who demanded that a Tesla factory there remain closed out of coronavirus concerns. The company has also come under scrutiny for workplace injuries and racial discrimination.

"He is a real dreamer and creator, yet he is also a cold-blooded, self-absorbed megalomaniac," Mr Hong Bo, a long-time tech commentator in China who writes under the name Keso, said of Mr Musk. "I admire his courage in breaking with outdated conventions, and yet I intensely dislike his trampling on the bottom lines of humanity."

Mr Musk and Tesla did not respond to requests for comment.

The frustration with Big Tech is part of a wider malaise in China. For many young people, decades of breakneck economic growth seem to have resulted in only fiercer competition for opportunities, less stability and less say over the direction of their lives.

On the Chinese Internet, the term that has captured the mood is "involution", previously used by anthropologists to describe agrarian societies that grew in size or complexity without becoming more advanced or productive.


Elon Musk speaks onstage during a delivery event for Tesla China-made Model 3 cars at its factory in Shanghai, on Jan 7, 2020. PHOTO: REUTERS

The feeling among young Chinese people that they are fighting harder for a slimmer chance at material gain is leading them to hope to "reorganise life in a different way", said Dr Xiang Biao, who studies social change in China and is director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.

Beyond criticising the tech industry's high-pressure work culture and the gig economy's labour abuses, young Chinese people are more sceptical of the vast influence that Internet platforms like Alibaba's wield over commerce and finance. Still, Dr Xiang believes people in China have not turned against businesses that deliver technological advancements of a more tangible nature, which is why Mr Musk's industrial optimism still has appeal.

"They're not really against tech," Dr Xiang said. "They're more against this kind of platform-style manipulation of social relations."

China does not lack outspoken tech tycoons. It is just that their careers never seem to go very far without running into trouble.

There is Mr Justin Sun, the cryptocurrency whizz who paid $4.6 million (S$6.2 million) to dine with Mr Warren Buffett but later apologised for "excessive self-promotion". Or Mr Jia Yueting, who set out to best Apple in smartphones and became buried in debt. Even Mr Ma of Alibaba appears to have helped catalyse the government's crackdown against him by speaking at an event a little too frankly about his annoyance with regulators.

Still, Mr Musk's devil-may-care style would probably attract little notice in China were he not seen as trying to tackle big problems for civilisation, like sustainable energy.

In a country where most people have seen new technology bring about mostly vast improvements to their lives, there is less cynicism about the far future than in the West.

Young Chinese people see Mr Ma and Mr Pony Ma, head of social media giant Tencent, "more as rich men and successful businessmen" than as Musk-like visionaries, said Mr Flex Yang, a co-founder of Babel Finance, a Hong Kong provider of financial services for cryptocurrencies.

The two Mas, who are not related, were merely "in the right place at the right time", Mr Yang said.

Mr Jack Ma and Mr Musk shared a stage at a Shanghai tech conference in 2019. There may never have been a more mismatched pair. Mr Ma was earnest and engaged, at ease in the role of conference grandee. Mr Musk was fidgety and jokey. The two did a great deal of talking right past each other. Mr Ma said the answer to super-intelligent machines was better education for humans. At this, Mr Musk merely laughed.

In a compilation of awkward moments from the event posted on video site Bilibili, the comments are brutal, mostly to Mr Ma.

"This is the person who in China was once looked up to as a god," one person wrote.

"In the presence of a real master, he is like a performing monkey."

Alibaba declined to comment.