Elon Musk railed against US covid controls—but not Shanghai’s lockdown

Elon Musk is not known for his consistency.
Elon Musk is not known for his consistency.
Image: Reuters/Hannibal Hanschke
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Elon Musk’s effort to buy Twitter has many wondering how the social platform’s approach to speech and moderation would change if he were successful. One topic that could present a conundrum is China.

Like many companies that do business in the country, Musk tends to refrain from criticizing Beijing’s policies, even though he slams similar moves by the US government. Nowhere is the difference more stark than when it comes to covid restrictions.

After California issued a stay-at-home order in March 2020 that forced his Fremont plant to halt production, Musk said the restriction amounted to “forcibly imprisoning people in their homes.” “I think the people are going to be very angry about this and are very angry…But to say that they cannot leave their house, and they will be arrested if they do, this is fascist. This is not democratic. This is not freedom. Give people back their goddamn freedom,” said Musk in a conference call in April.

But when it comes to lockdowns in China, which the country continues to impose in adherence to its zero-covid strategy, Musk has been far more diplomatic despite the impact to his operations. Due to Shangahi’s lockdown since March 28, Tesla’s Gigafactory had to halt operations there for three weeks. The factory, which produced more than 180,000 vehicles in the first quarter, is estimated to have suffered a production loss of around 50,000 vehicles during the lockdown period, according to Reuters.

Tesla China didn’t immediately reply to a request for comment.

Compared with the restrictions imposed in the US, China’s stay-at-home orders are far more stringent, involving mass testing and dispatching those who test positive to quarantine facilities. The Shanghai lockdown has led to food shortages in parts of the city, and the deaths of people who couldn’t access emergency medical care unrelated to covid. There have been outcries even within China about the personal costs of the lockdown.

But apart from tweeting early this month that the first quarter was “exceptionally difficult” due to supply chain interruptions and China’s zero-covid policy, Musk has kept any other opinions on China’s zero-covid approach to himself on Twitter. On Musk’s account on Chinese platform Weibo, where he has over 2 million followers, he promoted on April 7 the opening of Tesla’s new factory in Texas—a shift he had threatened in response to California’s covid order—but hasn’t said a word about Shanghai’s lockdown. Meanwhile the Weibo account of Tesla China also hasn’t referenced the disruptions this month, mainly posting job ads and sharing Tesla customer photos of its vehicles.

Musk has long demonstrated a favorable attitude toward China, despite the increasingly strained relations China has with western countries. He praised China’s “economic prosperity” on the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party last year, and lauded it as a leader in global digitalization at a conference hosted by China’s Cyberspace Administration that year. And the admiration, for the most part, is mutual.

In a “white list” released by the government over the weekend, Tesla was included alongside nearly 700 companies deemed by authorities as having strategic importance and that should receive priority to resume operating. The factory appears to have reopened this week after adopting a ”closed-loop” style arrangement approved by authorities that will see workers sleep and eat at the plant through May 1, according to Bloomberg.

While Musk’s approach may just be practical, it does raise questions about how a Twitter owned by Musk would deal with thorny moderation issues related to China.