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Elon Musk hopes China will chill out

December 7, 2021, 6:03 PM UTC

When it comes to China’s geopolitical future, history will show Tesla CEO Elon Musk as presciently optimistic, woefully naive, or merely corrupted by money.

Asked Monday evening at The Wall Street Journal’s CEO Council summit about his views on China’s economic position in the world, Musk expressed hope that the country—an authoritarian state responsible for imprisoning more than a million Uighurs, stealing trade secrets from U.S. companies, engaging in a sweeping crackdown of its domestic tech industry, and enshrining President Xi Jinping as a forever-leader—will just mellow out, man.

“We’re headed toward a situation where China is probably going to have an economy two to three times larger than the United States. That’s just a different world,” Musk said. 

“I do think there are a lot of people in the government of China who grew up with China being a smaller economy, and maybe who feel like China was pushed around a lot, but they haven’t fully appreciated that China is going to be the big kid on the block. And so if you’re going to be the big kid on the block, you can really be pretty chill about things. Other countries are not really a threat to you if you’re by far the biggest kid on the block. I would say that’s kind of an important mindset change, hopefully, that China goes through.” 

Musk continued his schoolyard analogy by invoking the Golden Rule, hypothetically asking the Chinese government, ”If you are going to be the biggest kid on the block, then wouldn’t you want to behave like you wanted the biggest kid on the block to behave?”

A favorable reading of Musk’s comments would suggest that the world’s richest man is, as much as he can, prodding the Xi administration to cool it with the ethnic cleansing and economic interventionism, while also maintaining Tesla’s valuable footprint in China. 

After all, Musk and nearly every other executive profiting from cheap Chinese labor and favorable subsidies turns the other cheek on human rights violations there. Example A: Apple inked a five-year, $275 billion deal to bolster the Chinese economy in 2016, when government regulators were taking actions that weighed down iPhone sales there, according to a blockbuster story published Tuesday by The Information.

But it’s hard to believe that Musk truly thinks China will suddenly see the light. While nearly 50 years of economic diplomacy have helped raise China’s citizens from extreme poverty, the government’s stranglehold on personal and economic freedoms remains strong as its global sphere of influence grows. Tesla knows this all too well, as The Wall Street Journal reported last week that the Chinese government has already started tightening its grip on the U.S. automaker. 

“To a degree still difficult for outsiders to absorb, China is preparing to shape the twenty-first century, much as the U.S. shaped the twentieth,” The New Yorker’s Evan Osnos wrote last year in a defining account on the Washington-Beijing relationship. “Its government is deciding which features of the global status quo to preserve and which to reject, not only in business, culture, and politics but also in such basic values as human rights, free speech, and privacy.”

We should pay little mind to prophecies on China’s long-term outlook from Musk or other economically-compromised business executives, whose obligations lie with their shareholders, employees, customers, and personal bank accounts. Rather, we should let their actions dictate whether they were on the right side of history.

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Jacob Carpenter


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Refugees look to make a legal point. Myanmar’s Rohingya refugees filed a class-action, $150-billion lawsuit Monday in California against Facebook, alleging the company failed to curb hate speech that led to mass killings, rapes, and the displacement of more than 700,000 Muslims, Reuters reported. The lawsuit puts a spotlight back on Facebook’s failure to police posts calling for violence against members of the Rohingya community, which Facebook officials conceded that they were slow to take down. However, the refugees likely face a daunting legal battle in the U.S., where Facebook and other social media groups enjoy broad protection.

From the article:

Facebook has said it is protected from liability over content posted by users by a U.S. internet law known as Section 230, which holds that online platforms are not liable for content posted by third parties. The complaint says it seeks to apply Myanmar law to the claims if Section 230 is raised as a defense.

Although U.S. courts can apply foreign law to cases where the alleged harms and activity by companies took place in other countries, two legal experts interviewed by Reuters said they did not know of a successful precedent for foreign law being invoked in lawsuits against social media companies where Section 230 protections could apply.

Anupam Chander, a professor at Georgetown University Law Center, said that invoking Myanmar law wasn't "inappropriate." But he predicted that "it's unlikely to be successful," saying that "it would be odd for Congress to have foreclosed actions under U.S. law but permitted them to proceed under foreign law."


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