Why Elon Musk won’t be challenging Xi Jinping to a duel anytime soon

Posted on : 2022-03-18 17:03 KST Modified on : 2022-03-18 17:03 KST
The Tesla founder recently challenged Putin to combat, but his tone when it comes to China has been markedly different
Tesla co-founder Elon Musk throws off his jacket while speaking at the launch of the Tesla Model 3 in Shanghai, China, in January 2020. (Reuters/Yonhap News)
Tesla co-founder Elon Musk throws off his jacket while speaking at the launch of the Tesla Model 3 in Shanghai, China, in January 2020. (Reuters/Yonhap News)

Tesla co-founder Elon Musk challenged Vladimir Putin to “single combat,” stirring another controversy with his typical inflammatory remarks and goading the latter for initiating the war in Ukraine — though even the irreverent entrepreneur has one target he doesn’t dare provoke: China.

Musk took to Twitter on Monday and issued a mocking challenge to the Russian president who ordered the attack on Ukraine, writing, “I hereby challenge Vladimir Putin to single combat. Stakes are Ukraine.” In his tweet, he wrote Putin’s name in Russian and wrote “Ukraine” in Ukrainian. He then wrote in another tweet, “If Putin could so easily humiliate the West, then he would accept the challenge,” adding, “But he will not.”

One of the richest men in the world, Musk has been supporting the war effort in Ukraine by providing his satellite internet service Starlink to the country after it suffered the destruction of its communication facilities following Russia’s invasion.

Musk’s provocative tweet was countered by Dmitry Rogozin, the chief of Russia’s space agency and one of Putin’s closest aides, who also took to Twitter and called Musk a “little devil.” Rogozin continued, “You are a punk and a weakling. You’re too weak even to compete with me. It would only be a waste of time.”

Though Musk joined in on the West’s chorus of criticism against Russia, his attitude toward China has been completely different. Last July, he commented on a Chinese state-run news agency’s Twitter post that quoted Chinese President Xi Jinping’s speech commemorating the Chinese Communist Party’s centennial. Musk wrote in his response, “The economic prosperity China has achieved is truly amazing, especially in infrastructure! I encourage people to visit and see for themselves.”

Additionally, Musk praised China in glowing terms in an interview with China Central Television last March, saying that China can do “extremely well over the next decade” and that the country “will become the biggest economy in the world.” Tesla even opened its first showroom in Urumqi, the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, amid tensions between the US and China regarding the area’s human rights issues, drawing criticism that the company was pandering to China.

Musk’s sycophantic attitude towards China derives from Tesla’s revenue structure. According to a report the company filed with the US Securities and Exchange Commission last month, Tesla’s revenue in China amounted to US$13.8 billion in 2021, 25.7% of its total revenue that year (US$53.8 billion). Tesla’s revenue by country was highest in the US at US$24 billion, or 44.6% of its total revenue that year, while other countries listed as “other” in the filing were responsible for 29.7% of Tesla’s 2021 revenue, or US$16 billion.

Important to note is that Tesla’s revenue in China has been almost doubling every year since 2018, with the country’s share in Tesla’s revenue structure rapidly increasing. China’s share in Tesla’s total revenue in 2018 was 7.9%, which rose to 12.2% in 2019, 20.1% in 2020, reaching the quarter mark at 25.7% in 2021. At this rate, China’s share of Tesla’s total revenue will amount to 30% this year. In other words, if Tesla closes shop in China, the company’s business is bound to suffer significantly.

Chinese consumers are often strongly motivated by patriotism. Last year, when global brands announced their ban of cotton grown in Xinjiang, citing the region’s human rights issues, they faced intense backlash from Chinese consumers who called for a boycott of those brands in turn.

When Tesla was publicly reprimanded by China’s State Administration for Market Regulation in February of last year, the company quietly acquiesced. At the time, Chinese authorities summoned Tesla executives for a “yutan,” or a scheduled meeting, late at night, pointing out problems in the company’s products such as batteries catching fire, vehicle speed issues, and problems in wireless software updates. Tesla responded to the late-night talking-to by stating that it would faithfully abide by the Chinese government’s instructions.

By Choi Hyun-june, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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