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Elon Musk greeted with flattery and feasts during China trip

Published 05/30/2023, 09:43 PM
Updated 05/31/2023, 12:27 PM
© Reuters. Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk gets in a Tesla car as he leaves a hotel in Beijing, China May 31, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang
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By Martin Quin Pollard

BEIJING (Reuters) -Billionaire Elon Musk was showered with praise during a trip to China this week, with people on social media calling him "a pioneer", "Brother Ma" and "a global idol" while the CEO of Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), Twitter, SpaceX and other companies also met in person with three government ministers.

Since landing in Beijing on Tuesday, Musk has met with China's foreign, commerce and industry ministers and has dined with Zeng Yuqun, chairman of top battery supplier CATL.

Little is known of those conversations. The industry ministry only said Musk and its head exchanged views about development of electric vehicles and connected cars; the commerce ministry announced he discussed Tesla's development in China with its head. But lack of information did not stop an outpouring of enthusiasm for Musk on Chinese social media.

"He's a global idol," commented one user. "Elon Musk is just great, if only China could have someone like Elon Musk," said another.

His private jet left Beijing on Wednesday evening for the financial hub of Shanghai, where the U.S. automaker has a factory, according to flight data provider Variflight. He was expected to travel to the plant to meet with staff, two sources familiar with the matter said.

Tesla did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Musk's unannounced trip was the latest by a major U.S. CEO to China since the country reversed its zero-COVID policy and reopened its borders. Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL)'s Tim Cook visited in March, while JPMorgan (NYSE:JPM)'s Jamie Dimon and Starbucks (NASDAQ:SBUX)' Laxman Narasimhan are in China this week.

But compared to lower-key welcomes for his counterparts, Musk's visit is a hot trending topic and his popularity comes despite rising U.S.-China tensions, with keen interest shown in his comments on artificial intelligence and electric vehicles.

Even the menu for the 16-course meal at the upmarket Man Fu Yan restaurant he shared with CATL's Zeng on Tuesday evening was effusive, photos posted on social media showed.

Illustrated with two rearing horses - a play on the character for horse used in Musk's Chinese name - the menu described Tesla as a dark horse "standing out from traditional automotive companies".

In contrast to the social media storm in China and his propensity at home to make waves on Twitter (which he now owns), Musk has yet to make any public statements during his trip. Twitter is blocked in China.

Tesla and CATL did not respond to requests for comment. The commerce ministry also did not respond to a request for comment. The foreign ministry quoted the billionaire as describing the U.S. and China economies as "conjoined twins" and saying that he was opposed to their decoupling.

Musk's first visit to China in three years comes as Tesla faces intensifying competition from Chinese-made electric vehicles and some uncertainty about expansion plans for the Shanghai plant.

The Shanghai factory produced over 700,000 Model Y and Model 3 vehicles last year, more than half of the company's global output.

© Reuters. Tesla Chief Executive Officer Elon Musk stands near Chinese Commerce Minister Wang Wentao before leaving the Chinese Ministry of Commerce in Beijing, China May 31, 2023. REUTERS/Tingshu Wang

It was not clear if Tesla is facing any regulatory hurdles to expanding the plant.

Investors are also keen to know whether China regulators will clear the release of Tesla's advanced driver assistance features. The features are available in the United States as part of the "Full Self Driving" software it sells for $15,000 per vehicle.

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