Jack Ma, co-founder of the e-commerce titan Alibaba, is a fallen idol, with his companies under government scrutiny for the ways they have secured their grip over the world’s second-largest economy.
But there is one tech figure who has managed to keep the Chinese in his thrall, whose mix of impish bomb-throwing and captain-of-industry bravado seems tailor-made for this time of dashed dreams and disillusionment: Elon Musk. “He can fight the establishment and become the richest man on earth — and avoid getting beaten down in the process,” said Jane Zhang, the founder and chief executive of ShellPay, a blockchain company in Shanghai. “He’s everybody’s hope.”
Whether out of hope, envy or morbid curiosity — like spectators hoping to see one of his rockets go down in a fiery blast — China cannot get enough of Musk. Tesla’s electric cars are big sellers in the country, and the government’s growing space ambitions have spawned a community of fans who track SpaceX’s every launch. Social platforms brim with articles pondering whether the South African-born billionaire is a trailblazer or a fraud, and examining everything from his upbringing to his taste in Beijing hot pot joints.
Start-up founders swear by his belief in “first-principles thinking,” which looks for solutions by examining problems at their most fundamental level. A stack of books by Chinese authors promises to reveal the secrets of the “Silicon Valley Iron Man,” which is the nickname that seems to have stuck in China, not King of Mars or Rocket Man. In a long thread about Musk on the question-and-answer site Zhihu, a user named Moonshake writes that most people start out full of hope but gradually accept the “mediocrity” that is their fate. “Only a superman like Musk can move past the endless mediocrity and toward the infinite, to see the magnificence of the universe,” Moonshake writes.
Tesla’s giant factory near Shanghai started production in 2019 and helped ramp up the company’s manufacturing capacity. When Tesla’s share price hit a new high in January, making Musk the planet’s wealthiest man, Chinese fans claimed credit. (Musk’s reaction to the news — “Well, back to work …” — was liked 22,000 times on the Chinese social platform Weibo.) Later that month, as Musk endorsed the run-up in GameStop shares, many in China were riveted, drawn to the drama by the same distrust of big financial institutions.
“Occupy Wall Street could never be copied in China,” said Suji Yan, an entrepreneur and investor in Shanghai. To do that, “you’d have go on the streets,” he said. Buying protest stocks is safer. The dispiritedness that many Chinese tech workers have for their industry is compounded by their feeling that it is no longer really inventing or innovating. While Musk is off building futuristic cars and colonising the cosmos, they see the best minds of their generation designing cellphone games, figuring out how to put more ads on social media and speculating in real estate. “China doesn’t have Silicon Valley madmen anymore,” Yan said.
Tech bosses “have all become cardboard cutouts,” he said, and investors won’t touch ideas that seem remotely “crazy.” Musk’s acolytes are a passionate bunch everywhere. But in China, his popularity is helped by the authoritarian government’s embrace of Tesla — and vice versa — when the US and China have never trusted each other’s high-tech companies less. Musk has praised the intelligence of the Chinese officials he met while preparing to open the Shanghai factory. The company, in a first for a foreign carmaker in China, has been allowed to run its plant without a local partner.
Zhong is a tech reporter for NYT©2020
The New York Times