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Opinion In dealing with Beijing, Elon Musk follows the path of least resistance

Tesla chief executive Elon Musk speaks via video to the China Development Forum in Beijing on Saturday. (Wu Hong/EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock)

THE WORLD’S seventh-richest man, Elon Musk, has accumulated his estimated $160 billion fortune through talent, effort — and billions of dollars in well-timed soft loans, tax breaks and other subsidies to his electric-car business, Tesla, from government, state and federal. Despite what he owes the U.S. public sector, Mr. Musk has not been shy about blasting it for occasionally trying to regulate him more than he finds convenient.

The Securities and Exchange Commission, for example, drew Mr. Musk’s ire over its charges that he improperly influenced the stock market with certain statements on Twitter. The SEC settled the case for a $20 million fine and other conditions, which didn’t stop Mr. Musk from declaring, “I do not respect the SEC,” or protesting, through his attorneys, that the agency’s later effort to enforce the deal was an “unconstitutional power grab.” Mr. Musk has also contested federal safety-related recalls. Defying covid-related public health measures in April 2020, Mr. Musk tweeted “FREE AMERICA NOW” and refused to shut his California factory. State officials acquiesced — and cases spiked among his workforce.

Mr. Musk is well within his rights when he chooses to criticize officialdom. But his stance contrasts sharply with the one he adopts toward an actual repressive government — China. There, Mr. Musk shifts into full-compliance mode. In January, Mr. Musk had kind words for the Chinese government’s responsiveness to its people’s needs, which might be “better” than that of the United States. The People’s Republic, site of a new Tesla factory and a major market for the cars, deserves praise for its “very aggressive goals” on climate change, he told Chinese state television Tuesday, adding that the “future of China is gonna be great.” Mr. Musk was apparently trying to deflect recent pressure from Beijing, in the form of official requests that military officers not drive Teslas, lest their sensors gather confidential data and transmit it to the United States. (We’d never “spy” in China, Mr. Musk pledged.)

This was consistent with Mr. Musk’s long-standing practice of backing down apologetically in the face of challenges from Beijing. When Chinese safety agencies raised issues about Tesla vehicles earlier this year, the company issued a contrite statement promising to “deeply reflect on the company’s operational shortcomings and comprehensively strengthen self-inspection. We will strictly abide by Chinese laws and regulations and always respect consumer rights.”

Unfortunately, Mr. Musk’s cravenness is not much different from that displayed by many U.S. and other Western business executives who seek to make money in the People’s Republic even as it sends Uyghurs to concentration camps, crushes Hong Kong’s democratic institutions or, as it did contemporaneously with Mr. Musk’s latest kind words for the Communist regime, puts two Canadians on trial on patently trumped-up espionage charges. Companies that rightly throw their weight behind social justice in the United States maintain an embarrassed silence about all of this and more.

Unlike less colorful corporate honchos, however, Mr. Musk is a cultural icon of sorts, including in China, where he has 1.7 million followers on Weibo, a social media app. If speaking truth to power were really Mr. Musk’s vocation, he would try to do it on this platform, too. “FREE CHINA NOW” has a nice ring to it.

Read more:

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Fred Hiatt: China might be right about America. But what are its leaders so afraid of?

David Ignatius: China is convinced America is in decline. Biden has a chance to change that.