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China's jaded techies find a hero in Elon Musk

The Tesla boss and digital prankster is striking a chord, at a time of disillusionment with the tech industry and its leading tycoons.

By Raymond Zhong
Published: Mar 12, 2021

China's jaded techies find a hero in Elon MuskElon Musk is one tech figure who has managed to keep the Chinese public in his thrall, at a time of disillusionment with the tech industry and its leading tycoons. 
Image: Mojo Wang/The New York Times

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. 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 Jane Zhang, founder and chief executive of ShellPay, a blockchain company in Shanghai. “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 Musk. 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 SpaceX’s every launch.

Social platforms brim with videos and articles pondering whether the South African-born billionaire is a trailblazer or a fraud and examining everything from his upbringing to his taste in Beijing hot pot joints. Startup 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, not King of Mars or Rocket Man.

In a long thread about 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 toward 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. The user did not reply to a message seeking further comment.

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 Musk the planet’s wealthiest man, Chinese fans claimed credit. (Musk’s reaction to the news — “Well, back to work … ” — was liked 22,000 times on the Chinese social platform Weibo.)

Later that month, as 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.

“Occupy Wall Street could never be copied in China,” said Suji Yan, 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 tech workers have for their industry is compounded by their feeling that it is no longer really inventing or innovating. While Musk is off building futuristic cars and colonizing the cosmos, they see the best minds of their generation designing cellphone games, figuring out how to put more ads on social media and speculating in real estate.

“China doesn’t have Silicon Valley madmen anymore,” Yan said. Tech bosses “have all become cardboard cutouts,” he said, and investors will not touch ideas that seem remotely “crazy.”

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.

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 marveled at the way 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 California 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.

Musk and Tesla did not respond to emails requesting 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.

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

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

“They’re not really against tech,” 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 Justin Sun, the cryptocurrency whiz who paid $4.6 million to dine with Warren Buffett but later apologized for “excessive self-promotion.” Or Jia Yueting, who set out to best Apple in smartphones and became buried in debt. Even Ma of Alibaba appears to have helped catalyze the government’s crackdown against him by speaking a little too frankly at an event about his annoyance with regulators.

Still, Musk’s devil-may-care style would probably attract little notice in China were he not seen as trying to tackle big problems for civilization, 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 Jack Ma and Pony Ma, head of social media giant Tencent, “more as rich men and successful businessmen” than as Musk-like visionaries, said 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,” Yang said.

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

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

©2019 New York Times News Service