China’s Jaded Techies Find a Hero in Elon Musk

China is having its techlash moment.

The country’s internet giants, once celebrated as engines of economic vitality, are now scorned for exploiting user data, abusing workers and squelching innovation.

Jack Ma, co-founder of 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 public 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, 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 videos and 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.

Startup 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 question-and-answer site Zhihu, a user named Moonshake wrote 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 wrote.

Another user in the same thread said he named his son Elon to express his admiration. The user did not reply to a message seeking further comment.

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 colonizing 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 will not 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 United States 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.

People in China marveled at the way Musk handled the country’s hard-nosed authorities. They have been more critical of the ways he has sometimes treated his own workers. He lashed out last year at California health officials who demanded that a Tesla factory there remain closed out of coronavirus concerns. The company has also come under scrutiny for workplace injuries and racial discrimination.

“He is a real dreamer and creator, yet he is also a coldblooded, self-absorbed megalomaniac,” Hong Bo, a longtime tech commentator in China who writes under the name Keso, said of Musk. “I admire his courage in breaking with outdated conventions, and yet I intensely dislike his trampling on the bottom lines of humanity.”

Musk and Tesla did not respond to emails requesting comment.

The frustration with Big Tech is part of a wider malaise in China. For many young people, decades of breakneck economic growth seem to have resulted in only fiercer competition for opportunities, less stability and less say over the direction of their lives.

On the Chinese internet, the term that has captured the mood is “involution,” previously used by anthropologists to describe agrarian societies that grew in size or complexity without becoming more advanced or productive.

The feeling among young Chinese people that they are fighting harder for a slimmer chance at material gain is leading them to hope to “reorganize life in a different way,” said Biao Xiang, who studies social change in China and is director of the Max Planck Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.

Beyond criticizing the tech industry’s high-pressure work culture and the gig economy’s labor abuses, young Chinese people are more skeptical of the vast influence that internet platforms like Alibaba’s wield over commerce and finance. Still, Xiang believes people in China have not turned against businesses that deliver technological advancements of a more tangible nature, which is why Musk’s industrial optimism still has appeal.

“They’re not really against tech,” Xiang said. “They’re more against this kind of platform-style manipulation of social relations.”

China does not lack outspoken tech tycoons. It is just that their careers never seem to go very far without running into trouble.

There is Justin Sun, the cryptocurrency whiz who paid $4.6 million to dine with Warren Buffett but later apologized for “excessive self-promotion.” Or Jia Yueting, who set out to best Apple in smartphones and became buried in debt. Even Ma of Alibaba appears to have helped catalyze the government’s crackdown against him by speaking a little too frankly at an event about his annoyance with regulators.

Still, Musk’s devil-may-care style would probably attract little notice in China were he not seen as trying to tackle big problems for civilization, like sustainable energy. In a country where most people have seen new technology bring about mostly vast improvements to their lives, there is less cynicism about the far future than in the West.

Many young Chinese people see Jack Ma and Pony Ma, head of social media giant Tencent, “more as rich men and successful businessmen” than as Musk-like visionaries, said Flex Yang, a co-founder of Babel Finance, a Hong Kong provider of financial services for cryptocurrencies. The two Mas, who are not related, were merely “in the right place at the right time,” Yang said.

Jack Ma and Musk shared a stage at a Shanghai tech conference in 2019. There may never have been a more mismatched pair. Ma was earnest and engaged, at ease in the role of conference grandee. Musk was fidgety and jokey. The two did a great deal of talking right past each other. Ma said the answer to superintelligent machines was better education for humans. At this, Musk merely laughed.

In a compilation of awkward moments from the event posted on the video site Bilibili, the comments are brutal, mostly to Ma.

“This is the person who in China was once looked up to as a god,” one person wrote. “In the presence of a real master, he is like a performing monkey.”

Alibaba declined to comment.


  1. PART I: Elon Musk is a Dangerous Sociopath with the Means to Do Great Damage

    Hong Bo’s description of Musk as simultaneously a “dreamer and creator” who can break with “outdated conventions” and “a coldblooded, self-absorbed megalomaniac…trampling on the bottom lines of humanity” aptly frames the story. The mistake would be to imply that these “bipolar” traits necessarily come as a package deal. They don’t. The nexus between them in Musk’s case is the ecosystem of capital accumulation, at the heart of which is the unrelenting, do or die struggle for ever rising profits. That’s bound to channel whatever talents and capacities into the least common denominator. In Musk’s case, it’s been a horrific descent into sociopathology.
    Musk’s has a history of fighting against unionizing drives by Tesla workers in New York and California, has subjected Tesla workers to at times harsh factory floor working conditions and has fought state initiatives to remedy these problems as a condition for state subsidies Tesla customers received. (;;;;

    After the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, and amid much uncertainty about the virus, Musk disparaged and publicly challenged the known science about the virus. Like Trump, he also propagated conspiracy theories regarding the origins of the pandemic and has recently questioned the efficacy of the vaccines now being used.


    Musk publicly criticized and defied the essential enterprises and shelter-in-place policies as adopted at the national and state levels and as applied by Alameda County health officials. He successfully lobbied and bullied the state and county officials to get them to relent and to allow for uninterrupted operations at Tesla, despite the dangers to factory workers.

    (;; true;;

    Musk fired several Tesla workers who continued to shelter in place using Tesla’s own opt out of work rules and later hid information about the number and sources of COVID-19 cases among the 10,000 Tesla factory workers, as well as company measures to insure social distancing and sanitation practices in the factory. As confirmed in just the past few days, this resulted in infections of hundreds of Tesla employees and hundreds more family and community members.


    We should remember that Musk’s profit-seeking behavior has been underwritten by multiple billions in grants, tax subsidies, tax breaks and contracts from federal, state and local governments. Such subsidies have been, in the aggregate, a minimum $5 billion. In exchange, Musk has derided the role of government in the economy, criticized government safety net programs and repeatedly “blackmailed” the state of California with threats of moving his production facilities–and himself–out of state.

    (;;; sections/coronavirus-live-updates/2020/05/09/853313775/elon-musk-says-tesla-suing-california-county-moving-headquarters-out-of-state;;

  2. PART II: Musk is Definitely Pursuing Profits; The Pursuit of Profits May Be Hazardous to Your Health

    Given the nature of profits (see, and to the extent they can get away with it, profit-seeking businesses have a direct interest in: minimizing wages and other worker compensation; minimizing health, safety and environmental mandates and regulations; minimizing their legal liability for harm caused by their products or services to consumers, to other businesses, to the environment or to society at large. In order to minimize such cost and liabilities, most businesses join forces with other businesses to combat all the above threats to profitability via lobbying, policy advocacy and other types of engagement.

    There are roughly 4,000 chambers of commerce in the U.S. with at least one full-time staff person with thousands more that operate on a volunteer basis ( The profit-maximizing imperative entails built-in incentives to constantly put downward pressure on worker compensation and working conditions and to constantly push against health, safety, environmental and consumer regulations and protections. In the absence of countervailing power, or if countervailing power is weak, working people, consumers and residents in general are subject to dangerous and, sometimes, deadly consequences.

    A particular case in point is Musk’s flaunting of COVID-19 rules and regulations, with the sheepish acquiescence of both state and Alameda County officials, resulted in the infection of hundreds of workers and probably hundreds of other family members and residents in the communities where those workers live. The number of deaths are not known (;; It is noteworthy that neither Musk nor Tesla have yet been brought up on charges related to these illnesses and possible deaths.

    Profit-driven production, if not closely regulated, poses a real and present danger to human welfare on a large scale.

  3. PART III: To the Moon, Alice!

    “Musk plans to launch his first unmanned mission to Mars in less than 4 years. He also plans to send 1 million people to the red planet by 2050 and build a fleet of 1,000 spacecraft to transport them there”…“I think it is important for humanity to become a space civilization and a multi-planet species. It will take a lot of resources to build a city on Mars. I want to be able to contribute as much as possible” (;;;

    If Musk follows through and promises to leave to Mars and signs a legal commitment not to return, we should help him along in any way we can. But first, let’s recoup the costs of the publicly-financed education of engineers, technicians, managers and dozens of other types of experts and specialists produced by the state’s schools, community colleges and universities who have built Musk businesses; the costs of the the publicly-financed health systems and measures that enable a healthy population and workforce–including Musk’s workforce–and protect us during a pandemic; the costs of the massive and publicly-financed infrastructure of roads, water and waste water systems, energy systems, sanitation and waste management systems, environmental health and safety systems, seaports and airports Musk and his workforce have used and are using; and the costs of the publicly-financed police and public court systems that protect Musk’s property, enforce the law and adjudicate Musk’s contracts and by the fire and emergency personnel who protect Musk, his businesses and his workforce.

    And then, it’s to the moon, Alice!, the first stop on Musk’s journey to the Red Planet (

  4. Musk worship by his groupies has been stupid from the start.

    He is not another Thomas Edison, much less a Tony Stark.

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