The bold and daring Elon Musk, founder of American electric car giant Tesla, has set the internet ablaze once again, this time for posting Cao Zhi’s (a prince of the state Wei in the Three Kingdoms period) poem “The Quatrain of Seven Steps” (《七步诗》) on Twitter and Weibo on 2 November.
Titled “Humankind”, his tweet quoted the entire poem, which roughly translates as: “Beanstalks are ignited to boil beans, the beans in the pot cry out. We are born of the selfsame root, why should we incinerate each other with such impatience?” Within two hours, his tweet garnered 50,000 likes and over 7,000 shares.
On the Bloomberg Billionaires Index released that same day, the net worth of Musk, the world’s richest person, had already risen to US$335 billion following Tesla’s soaring share price. His wealth is now three times that of renowned investor Warren Buffett’s. Seen against the backdrop of Musk’s recent moves, the poem he tweeted, which conveyed the message that brothers should not fight each other, instantly left the internet guessing.
Since late October, US congressmen and international organisations have urged Musk to donate a portion of his wealth. Last week, the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) Executive Director David Beasley called on the ultra-rich to help solve the world hunger crisis, and specifically mentioned Musk.
Musk then tweeted in response, “If WFP can describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger, I will sell Tesla stock right now and do it.”
Many netizens thus believe that Musk posted the Chinese poem in response to this incident. Some netizens teased, “Instead of ‘The Quatrain of Seven Steps’, the poem that speaks about sympathising with toiling farmers [《悯农》] seems more appropriate.”
On the other hand, because Musk is a firm supporter of cryptocurrency, netizens are also guessing that Musk posted the Chinese poem to hint at the competition between Dogecoin and Shiba Inu, and the poem would make sense if one substituted the word 豆 (dou, beans) in the poem with “doge”, since the two characters sound similar.
Some also believe that Musk’s mention of “Humankind” could refer to the historical strategy digital game where players could rewrite human history, and that his tweet could just be his reflections after playing the game. Others claimed that even Musk knows about cross-strait relations and added two lines at the back of the poem: “The world can’t tolerate me, I will just leave.” (地球容不下，我走行不行)
As for the portion of netizens who do not understand Chinese, they firmly believe that Musk was sharing a bean recipe after translating his tweet on a software: “Boiling beans by burning the beanstalks.”
Musk has been visiting China almost every year since 2014, and has been full of praise for the country each time he visited.
Rumoured to have some East Asian blood in him, it is unsurprising that Musk’s tweet attracted widespread attention on the internet. Musk has formed an indissoluble bond with China ever since Tesla entered the Chinese market in 2013.
Musk has been visiting China almost every year since 2014, and has been full of praise for the country each time he visited. He even complimented roadside eateries selling buns and crepes, as well as hotpot restaurants, making this “Silicon Valley Iron Man” a “China fanboy”.
On his first visit to China in 2014, Musk praised China’s high efficiency. In the face of China’s economic slowdown in 2015, Musk confidently declared, “China is attractive right now, and in [the] long term.”
In 2018 after Musk watched a video of Chinese workers who built a train station in nine hours, he immediately shared the video on Twitter and praised, “China's progress in advanced infrastructure is more than 100 times faster than the US.”
In July 2018, Musk landed a deal with Shanghai authorities to build a Gigafactory in the city that it would solely own, making Tesla the first wholly foreign-owned automaker in China. In January 2019, Musk was received by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Ziguangge, Zhongnanhai, welcoming the peak moment of his positive endeavours in China.
It is clear that Musk’s strong bond with China also originates from the massive potential of the Chinese market. Tesla made US$9.015 billion in China in the first three quarters of this year, which is an increase of 122.92% year-on-year. Tesla’s revenue in China also accounted for 24.97% of Tesla’s global revenue. In the same period last year, this figure stood at 19.45%.
During an interview with CCTV in March this year, Musk predicted, “China, I think in the long term, will be our biggest market.”
However, things went downhill for Musk and Tesla in 2020. Chinese public opinion started criticising this “old friend of China” for being “arrogant” and “overbearing”.
Last March, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology interviewed Tesla regarding the illegal assembly of HW2.5 components for some Model 3 vehicles. It was ordered to make immediate rectifications and effectively uphold its corporate responsibility.
This February, Tesla recalled 36,126 Model S and Model X vehicles, surpassing its total recalls in 2020 in one fell swoop. At the same time, Tesla was again interviewed by relevant departments for problems such as unintended accelerations, battery fires, and issues with its over-the-air programming.
...there was further news that some personnel in government agencies were told not to park their Tesla cars in government complexes, because the cameras in Tesla cars were potential security threats.
In April, an incident that happened at the Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition (Auto Shanghai) where people were seen protesting about quality issues involving Tesla vehicles also dealt a big blow to Tesla’s reputation in China.
And with the intensifying strategic competition between China and the US, informed sources revealed that in March this year, the Chinese military stopped Tesla cars from entering military facilities, citing potential security threats. Two months later, there was further news that some personnel in government agencies were told not to park their Tesla cars in government complexes, because the cameras in Tesla cars were potential security threats. So far, Tesla’s venture into China has been rocky.
Musk to the rescue
Following the honeymoon period and facing the seven-year itch, how will Musk face the travails in China?
In fact, Musk’s high-profile statements this year in support of China and the rebound in Tesla sales in China show that he is gradually moving out of this crisis.
At the China Development Forum, a high-level business gathering hosted by a foundation under the State Council, Musk responded to Tesla’s digital security controversy: “If Tesla used cars to spy in China or anywhere, we will get shut down.”
Three days later, in an interview with CCTV, Musk said he was impressed by the carbon emission goals set out in the country’s latest five-year economic and social blueprint, saying that, “China is headed towards being the biggest economy in the world and a lot of prosperity in the future.”
On 25 May, Tesla posted on its official Weibo: “We have set up a data centre in China to locally store data – collected by Tesla vehicles sold in mainland China – and we will add more. All data generated from cars sold in mainland China will be stored within China.”
Musk’s mother Maye Musk quietly joined popular Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu as a model and dietician.
Musk reiterated all this in his opening speech at the World Internet Conference held in Wuzhen in September, and forecasted that China will become a global leader in digitalisation, adding that Tesla will continue to expand investment in R&D efforts in China.
On another note, one day after the Auto Shanghai incident, Musk’s mother Maye Musk quietly joined popular Chinese social media platform Xiaohongshu as a model and dietician. This distinguished 73-year-old fashionista has attracted many followers with everyday videos of her at work; this is her second social media platform in China, after Weibo.
In her first video, she introduced herself in English, saying, “I’ve been to China a few times and loved it.” While some netizens said this was crisis management, overall the comments were positive.
At the same time, as the biggest advocate of cryptocurrencies, in March this year Musk announced that Tesla would support payment by Bitcoin, pushing the value of Bitcoin to a record high in April. But in May, in a sudden u-turn, he said that plan was suspended for environmental reasons, and Bitcoin’s value fell by 10%.
Notably, that same month, the Chinese government announced a host of measures to clamp down on cryptocurrencies, including that financial and payment agencies were not allowed to accept cryptocurrencies as payment or accounting tools, or provide cryptocurrency-related services and products, as well as measures to hit at bitcoin mining and transactions. In terms of timing, Musk’s statement and the Chinese government’s policies might not be a coincidence.
And while the Bitcoin market has been rocked by Musk’s comments, Tesla’s image and sales in China have been steadily improving.
The owner was ordered to apologise to Tesla and pay damages of 50,000 RMB (S$10,515).
During this period, there has been a quiet “reversal” of Tesla’s negative news. First, in early June, an audio recording surfaced, in which a certain Mr Wen from Zhengzhou — who had earlier complained that the brakes on his Tesla car were not working properly — said there was nothing really wrong with his car, but he wanted to use the pressure of public opinion to get Tesla to pay him back three times over. Henan TV, which previously carried reports about Mr Wen’s claims, has removed all posts of the incident from its Weibo account.
Subsequently, in late June, new media platform China Automotive News (人民车市) under state media People's Daily published an article saying that Tesla’s brakes were fine. The article criticised the woman at the Auto Shanghai show, noting that “it is fine to uphold one’s rights to an appropriate degree, but not to be malicious and take things out of context, twist the facts, and have an agenda”.
Last month, a verdict was reached in the case of a Tesla owner who claimed a case of brake failure on 12 August 2020 — the owner was found to have released information that was false and damaging to Tesla’s reputation, resulting in internet users and media audiences having the wrong idea about Tesla, and lowering social assessments of Tesla. The owner was ordered to apologise to Tesla and pay damages of 50,000 RMB (S$10,515).
And in the report on sales of new energy vehicles in China in September, released by the China Passenger Car Association (CPCA) on 12 October, Tesla broke its own record, with 56,006 new vehicles sold, exceeding its performance in August of over 40,000 vehicles sold. This was a month-on-month growth of 27%, and a year-on-year increase of 394%.
Of these 56,006 new vehicles, 52,153 were sold to Chinese owners, showing that Tesla is winning back market confidence after hitting a low.
Now, Musk has sparked speculation with an ancient Chinese poem, and there is a lot of attention on Tesla’s growth in China. It is worth watching Musk’s fortune in and relations with China, and if he could continue to rise to the occasion.
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