Hutong Cat | Will Twitter under Elon Musk give China the 'blue tick'? - Hindustan Times
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Hutong Cat | Will Twitter under Elon Musk give China the 'blue tick'?

May 02, 2022 01:00 PM IST

Now that Musk — whose Tesla makes billions in China — has bought Twitter, the ties between the two of the richest and powerful might have got a bit too snug.

Serial entrepreneur Elon Musk is easily China’s current favourite in the star-studded line of western capitalists it has doted on like Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.

During a Shanghai visit in 2019, Musk is quoted as having said: “I’ve never seen anything built so fast in my life before, to be totally frank. And I’ve seen some crazy things … I really think China is the future.” (Reuters) PREMIUM
During a Shanghai visit in 2019, Musk is quoted as having said: “I’ve never seen anything built so fast in my life before, to be totally frank. And I’ve seen some crazy things … I really think China is the future.” (Reuters)

Now that Musk — whose Tesla makes billions in China — has bought Twitter, the ties between the two of the richest and powerful might have got a bit too snug.

At least that’s what many are saying on Twitter.

Hard-banned here since 2009, Twitter is brazenly used by the Chinese government and its media to share its side of the story, mostly, for propaganda, and sometimes to peddle conspiracy theories.

It is a platform for academics, dissidents, and journalists to criticise and critique China and its policies too. 

Will corporate interests trump free speech? That’s been the buzz among China watchers since Musk’s high-profile purchase of Twitter recently.

Because Twitter’s servers and users are almost entirely yet out of China’s lengthening reach, it will likely be difficult for Beijing to exert any significant influence on the social media platform’s content.

But then, here’s the other side: Tesla manufactures nearly half of its cars in Shanghai, enjoys special tax incentives and depends on local suppliers for critical components including batteries.

Tesla makes cars and a lot of money in China.

In fact, those in its supply chain also make money; Musk’s China battery supplier, for example, is said to have made more money than most famous entrepreneur Jack Ma last year.

Notwithstanding a few bumps that Musk has faced here since Tesla’s “Gigafactory”, the only — yes, the only — fully foreign-owned-and-run car company in China was set up, he has been on a roll here. Mostly.

Musk was already a known name in China given Beijing’s push for clean energy vehicles.

In 2019, the Chinese government laid out the red carpet, cut through the red-tape and ensured all help for the first Tesla factory in China to begin producing electric cars in less than one year after the factory’s ground-breaking – all this amid serious Sino-US disputes over a range of issues.

Three years later, it’s doing well, data shows.

Tesla sold 70, 847 China-made vehicles in December, the highest monthly rate since it started manufacturing in Shanghai, the China Passenger Car Association (CPCA) data showed in January.

Tesla’s December sales were almost three times the amount achieved in the same month last year and 34% higher than November’s sales; it included 285 cars sold abroad.

Overall, Tesla sold at least 473,078 China-made cars, according to Reuters' calculations of CPCA’s data.

Which means Tesla’s made-in-China cars accounted for around half of the 936,000 vehicles the US automaker delivered globally in 2021.

State-controlled tabloid, Global Times was quick to point out on April 26 — on Twitter — that “Tesla generated $4.65 billion in China in Q1, 2022, a year-on-year increase of 52.8%. China is now Tesla's second-largest market, accounting for 24.8% of the company’s revenue.”

So, what now?

In the times ahead, in the era of Twitter’s “absolutist free speech”, will we see more Chinese propaganda and less criticism, say, of its hardline policies in Xinjiang and Covid-19-control?

“Tesla's investments in China and the potential of the country's enormous market have already given Beijing enormous leverage over Elon Musk. And despite his willingness to say just about anything and offend just about anyone, Musk has never uttered a peep of criticism of China in public. For all his chutzpah, Musk has not yet demonstrated that he has any backbone when it comes to dealing with the Chinese government,” Jeremy Goldkorn, editor of the China-focused SupChina.com, said.

Not everyone agrees that this would be the end of Twitter as we think we know it.

The idea that China will soon begin to heavily influence Twitter is “simplistic and stretched”, a sociologist, an expert in the field of global communication, who did not wish to be named, told HT.

“There’s a lot of US investment in China. Just because of the investment, can China control the narrative (coming from the US on China)?” the sociologist said.

The assumption that China will now influence Twitter depends on two critical factors, the professor said: “Intention (on the part of Musk) and ability (on Beijing’s part.) At this point, both are conjectures.

Another factor that might be at work is whether Twitter wants to return to the Chinese market.

“Based on what we know from previous attempts by US social media companies to enter China, if Twitter wants to enter China’s domestic market, it will have to conform to the Chinese government’s censorship requirements,” said Jennifer Pan, associate professor, department of communication, Stanford University.

It’s a complex issue given the way freedom of speech is interpreted.

The first test may come if Twitter adopts a so-called ‘absolutist free speech policy’ and restores former US President Donald Trump’s account.

“Will Twitter at the same time remove ‘state-affiliated media’ labels from Chinese state media, and once again allow Chinese propaganda organs to amplify their messages on Twitter unfettered,” questioned Goldkorn.

“And if that happens, will we consider that to be a restoration of the free speech rights of Chinese government propaganda organs, or the first sign of Musk's sycophancy to Beijing in action?”

Officially, China has shrugged off the speculation.

Responding to a question from a Reuters reporter about whether China will exert its influence on Twitter to promote Chinese “state media reports,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin said last week that “You are very good at guessing but without any factual basis”.

The question and answer followed after Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, asked on Twitter if Musk’s purchasing of Twitter would give China “a little bit of leverage over town square”.

Chinese state media has already begun to talk about “free speech”, though the outlets remain delightfully vague about the caveat that it comes with: “Chinese characteristics”.

“While Musk has called himself a ‘free speech absolutist,’ Chinese officials, media representatives and companies hope this stance of valuing freedom of speech could bring some changes to the social media platform, which has imposed some discriminatory measures on Chinese media outlets and diplomats,” the tabloid Global Times said in a report on the topic.

By his own admission, Musk has seen some crazy things in his time.

During a Shanghai visit in 2019, Musk is quoted as having said: “I’ve never seen anything built so fast in my life before, to be totally frank. And I’ve seen some crazy things … I really think China is the future.”

Some are now questioning that of Twitter’s.

Sutirtho Patranobis, HT’s experienced China hand, writes a weekly column from Beijing, exclusively for HT Premium readers. He was previously posted in Colombo, Sri Lanka, where he covered the final phase of the civil war and its aftermath, and was based in Delhi for several years before that

The views expressed are personal

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