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Tesla, Elon Musk face backlash in China after Beijing’s complaint against SpaceX

Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX, speaks at the Washington Convention Center in March 2020. (Brendan Smialowski/AFP/Getty Images)

Elon Musk may be Time magazine’s Person of the Year, but he is not the flavor of the month in China.

Beijing’s criticism this month of SpaceX satellites is fueling anger against Musk, who had long been one of the most popular Western executives in China. The backlash included calls online Wednesday for sanctions against SpaceX and suggestions to boycott Musk’s electric carmaker, Tesla.

The allegations that the satellites threatened the safety of China’s space station come as Beijing has been putting pressure on prominent business figures, even those who were previously national darlings. The approach also reflects the new Cold War-esque space race that is shaping up between China and the United States. Both are vying to put the first human on Mars and staking out strategic positions in space.

Musk has been adored in China for years, with some of the country’s most prominent entrepreneurs praising him as visionary and showing off their Tesla cars. Tesla received rare official approval to operate its Shanghai factory solo, despite a usual requirement that foreign carmakers team up with a Chinese partner.

Just last month, Musk became a viral hit on the Chinese microblogging platform Weibo, after he posted a cryptic Chinese poem to his 1.9 million followers.

But the SpaceX backlash suggests challenges ahead for Musk, as business is increasingly viewed through the lens of national security in Beijing and Washington.

Billionaire Elon Musk tweeted an ancient Chinese poem. It left his followers theorizing about its meaning.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian said at a routine news conference on Tuesday that China notified the United Nations on Dec. 3 about two “close encounters” this year between SpaceX’s Starlink satellites and China’s space station. The space station, known as the Tiangong, took evasive maneuvers on July 1 and Oct. 21 to avoid collisions with the satellites, according to the document Beijing submitted to the U.N.

“The U.S. claims to be a strong advocate for the concept of ‘responsible behavior in outer space,’ but it disregarded its treaty and posed a grave threat to the safety of astronauts,” Zhao said, referring to the 1967 Outer Space Treaty.

Beijing’s complaint was widely reported in state media, fanning public outrage against Musk and his companies. On Tuesday, China’s national broadcaster CCTV posted a video online blasting SpaceX, with the hashtag “The United States is bringing its double standards into outer space.” The video and other posts tagged with the hashtag have received more than 30 million views.

“The U.S. government also bears responsibility,” the CCTV anchor says in the clip. “They have caused severe threat to the lives and safety of other countries’ astronauts.”

A number of Chinese social media commentators on Wednesday raised the idea of sanctions or boycotts against SpaceX and Tesla. “We cannot let Musk eat China’s food while smashing China’s cooking pot,” one Weibo user declared. “I definitely won’t buy Tesla,” another wrote.

Tesla and SpaceX did not immediately respond to emails seeking comment.

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Close encounters between man-made objects in orbit are growing as space becomes more cluttered, with SpaceX’s Starlink blamed as a major contributor. One estimate by Hugh Lewis, the head of the Astronautics Research Group at the University of Southampton in Britain, said Starlink already accounts for more than half of close encounters between spacecraft in orbit, with the proportion forecast to grow to as much as 90 percent as the company launches more satellites, according to Space.com.

China’s space debris has also posed a nuisance to the United States and other countries. Last month, the International Space Station maneuvered to avoid a collision with debris from a satellite China destroyed 14 years ago.

China has emerged in recent years as a serious challenger to the United States in space exploration. In May, China became the second nation to deploy a vehicle on the surface of the Red Planet. Beijing announced over the summer its goal of sending a crewed mission to Mars by 2033, a timeline that could put it ahead of NASA.

Some Chinese commentators suggested that perhaps China could speed up its own satellite deployments to compete with Musk. In reference to SpaceX’s goal to put more than 40,000 satellites into orbit, Chinese celebrity stock picker Dan Bin quipped to his 12.8 million Weibo followers on Tuesday: “First come, first served. We can send 100,000 of them up first.”

Pei Lin Wu in Taipei contributed to this report.

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