What if China used Tesla to force Elon Musk to censor Twitter?

Twitter is already censored in China. With the takeover of the social network by Elon Musk, Beijing may have leverage to censor the social network outside. And this lever is called Tesla.

This is a possibility that emerged very shortly after the news of the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk: what if China now had a powerful lever of pressure to force the American entrepreneur to censor the social network? or, at the very least, to be less observant of Chinese propaganda?

An impossible hypothesis? Admittedly, Elon Musk portrays himself as an absolutist of freedom of expression and seems determined to reduce moderation rules to a minimum (which could cause him some problems in the rest of the world), but Elon Musk is also and above all the boss of car manufacturer Tesla. And China has become a key market for the brand.

China has become a decisive market for Tesla, both to sell cars, to build them and to manufacture their batteries. // Source: Tesla

That’s what show the figures reassembled by Global Times, a media that follows the editorial line of the Chinese Communist Party: “ Tesla generated $4.65 billion in China in Q1 2022, a 52.8% year-over-year increase. China is now Tesla’s second largest market, accounting for 24.8% of the company’s revenue. »

Pressure to censor Twitter outside of China?

Some might say that the prospect of Twitter censorship by pressuring Tesla’s business in China wouldn’t make much sense: Twitter is already censored there. We can’t neutralize it more than it already is, except by tracking Internet users who would use VPNs to try to pass between the interstices of the Great Firewall.

But it is ignoring that Beijing perhaps sees censorship as a continuum and that its economic power now allows it to consider censorship beyond its borders as well. This is the reflection of a few journalists specializing in China, such as Mike Forsythe of the New York Times and Melissa Chan of Vice and the Washington Post.

After 2009, when China banned Twitter, the Chinese government had virtually no leverage over the platform. Maybe that just changed », writes Mike Forsythenoting that the Chinese market is also very important for Tesla in the supply of batteries for the brand’s cars.

How will Elon Musk get out of the mess, if this hypothesis materializes?  // Source: Wiki Commons
How will Elon Musk get out of the mess, if this hypothesis materializes? // Source: Wiki Commons

More direct, Melissa Chan wonder what will happenif Beijing is pressuring him about, for example, a Uyghur or Hong Kong activist account? Or about the Chinese disinformation bots that operate this platform? “. And that the freedom of expression in which the entrepreneur wraps himself is likely to have very real effects on his business in China.

If Elon Musk thinks that because he’s the richest man in the world he can tell China to fuck off if Beijing starts going after it over Twitter, it will find out how effectively the Chinese state can gobble up the Tesla factory in Shanghai, taking with it as much intellectual property as it can “, she warns.

This possibility is also shared by Antoine Bondaz, China specialist and research fellow at the Foundation for Strategic Research: “ The Chinese regime will love the takeover of Twitter by Musk… He now has a real means of pressure on the social network », does he observeprecisely pointing out the financial stakes of the Chinese market for Tesla.

China is already accused of using its influence

With the rise of its economic power, China is increasingly suspected and accused of exporting its censorship abroad. Human Rights Watch concerned about the export of Chinese censorshipheadlined Le Monde in 2020. In the NGO’s report, the interference of Beijing is singled out for silencing critics in business, academia and government.

A year earlier, the Blizzard studio had been accused of giving in to Chinese influence, to preserve its commercial interests in the world, by disqualifying and sanctioning a professional player from Hearthstone which had shown its support for Hong Kong. At the time, major demonstrations were taking place there to reject the efforts of Beijing to take control.

At the time, the American studio assured that it had made this decision without outside pressure (Blizzard must however submit locally to Chinese rules for its games: for example, it cannot represent skeletons in World of Warcraft) and not censor anyone on Hong Kong, explaining that the pro player’s case was that he broke the rules of a tournament.

A protest in Hong Kong.  // Source: Wikipedia
A protest in Hong Kong. // Source: Wikipedia

This had not calmed the game. The incident had turned into a political affair, in the United States and abroad, forcing the studio to cancel an event, causing it to lose some sponsors and causing internal divisions. . Players also gave voice in the West, believing that the studio put its interests before its principles.

There is no doubt that Beijing has seen the takeover of Twitter by Elon Musk and is well aware of the latter’s interests in the Middle Kingdom. And there is no doubt that the perspectives envisaged by Antoine Bondaz, Melissa Chan and Mike Forsythe have also crossed the minds of the leaders of the Chinese Communist Party. But whether they activate this means of pressure on the social network is another story.

On this subject, Jeff Bezos is more cautious. The billionaire and founder of Amazon (a company that has also faced Chinese censorship) isn’t sure this is the scenario that will play out: he estimates on Twitter that Beijing will complicate Tesla’s life in China, instead of putting pressure on Twitter, even if it will be necessary to judge on parts the decisions of Elon Musk on the social network.

Will the new owner of Twitter be able to extricate himself from this danger, despite divergent interests that could put him in a bad position? Jeff Bezos, on this subject, was full of praise for his rival: ” Elon Musk is extremely good at navigating this kind of complexity “. But it supports the idea that the billionaire going to drool.

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