China has its technical moment.
The country’s internet giants, once hailed as the engines of economic vitality, are now despised for harnessing user data, abusing workers, and stifling innovation. Jack Ma, co-founder of e-commerce titan Alibaba, is a fallen idol. Its companies are being scrutinized by the government to see how they got the world’s second largest economy under control.
But there is one technician who has managed to keep the Chinese public in suspense, whose mix of mischievous bombing and captain’s bravery seems tailor-made for this time full of dreams and disillusionment: Elon Musk.
“He can fight the establishment and become the richest man in the world – and not be beaten,” said Jane Zhang, founder and CEO of ShellPay, a blockchain company in Shanghai. “He is everyone’s hope.”
Whether out of hope, envy, or morbid curiosity – like bystanders hoping one of its missiles will go down in a fiery explosion – China can’t get enough of Mr. 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 watch every SpaceX launch.
There are plenty of videos and articles on the social platforms reflecting on whether the South African-born billionaire is a pioneer or a cheater, exploring everything from his upbringing to his tastes in Beijing’s hot-pot joints. Start-up founders swear by his belief in “thinking by the first principles,” which seeks solutions by examining problems at their most basic level. A pile of books by Chinese authors promises to reveal the secrets of the “Silicon Valley Iron Man”. That moniker seems stuck in China, not King of Mars or Rocket Man.
In a long thread about Mr. Musk on the Zhihu Q&A, a user named Moonshake writes that most people start out hopeful but gradually accept the “mediocrity” that is their fate.
“Only a superman like Musk can move past endless mediocrity and infinitely to see the magnificence of the universe,” writes Moonshake.
Another user on the same thread says he named his son Elon to show his admiration. The user did not respond to a message requesting further comment.
Tesla’s huge factory near Shanghai started production in 2019 and helped increase the company’s manufacturing capacity. When Tesla’s share price hit a new high in January, making Mr. Musk the richest man in the world, Chinese fans demanded credit. (Mr. Musk’s reaction to the news – “Well, back to work …” – was liked 22,000 times on the Chinese social platform Weibo.)
Later that month, when Mr Musk advocated the rise in GameStop shares, many in China were thrilled, attracted 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 would have taken to the streets,” he said. It is safer to buy protest stocks.
The discouragement many Chinese technicians have for their industry is compounded by the feeling that they are no longer really inventing or innovating. As Mr. Musk builds futuristic cars and colonizes the cosmos, they see the best minds of their generation designing mobile games figure out how to run more ads on social media and speculate in real estate.
“China has run out of Silicon Valley crazies,” said Yan. Tech bosses “have all become cardboard clippings,” he said, and investors won’t touch ideas that seem “crazy” from a distance.
Mr. Musk’s acolytes are a passionate bunch everywhere. In China, however, its popularity is aided by the authoritarian government’s acceptance of Tesla – and vice versa – when the US and China have never trusted each other’s high-tech companies less.
People in China wondered how Mr. Musk dealt with the country’s hardened authorities. They were more critical of the way he sometimes treated his own workers. He protested against California health officials last year who called for a Tesla factory there to remain closed over coronavirus concerns. The company was also investigated for workplace injuries and racial discrimination.
“He’s a true dreamer and creator, but he’s also a cold-blooded, selfish megalomaniac,” said Hong Bo, a longtime tech commentator in China who writes under the name Keso, of Mr. Musk. “I admire his courage to break with outdated conventions, and yet I don’t like it when he tramples on the basic lines of humanity.”
Mr Musk and Tesla did not respond to emails asking for comment.
The frustration with big tech is part of a greater unease in China. For many young people, decades of breakneck economic growth seem to have only led to increased competition for opportunities, less stability and less influence on the direction of their lives.
On the Chinese Internet, the mood-capturing term is “involution,” previously used by anthropologists to describe agrarian societies that grew in size or complexity without becoming more progressive or productive.
The feeling among young Chinese that they are fighting harder for a smaller chance of material gain gives them hope to “reorganize life in a different way,” said Biao Xiang, who studies social change in China and director of the Max Planck is the Institute for Social Anthropology in Germany.
Young Chinese not only criticize the high-pressure work culture of the technology industry and the abuse of work in the gig economy, but are rather skeptical of the enormous influence that Internet platforms such as Alibaba have on trade and finance. Still, Professor Xiang believes that the people of China have not turned against companies that are making more tangible technological advances, which is why Mr. Musk’s industrial optimism still resonates.
“You are not really against technology,” said Professor Xiang. “They are more against this kind of platform manipulation of social relationships.”
There is no shortage of downright tech tycoons in China. It’s just that their careers never seem to go very far without getting into trouble.
There’s Justin Sun, the cryptocurrency expert, who paid $ 4.6 million for dinner with Warren E. Buffett but later apologized for “excessive self-promotion”. Or Jia Yueting, who set out to become the best Apple for smartphones and was buried in debt. Even Alibaba’s Mr Ma appears to have helped catalyze government crackdown on him by speaking a little too openly about his anger with regulators at an event.
Still, Mr. Musk’s devil-may-care style would likely get little attention in China if it were not seen as an attempt to address big problems for civilization like sustainable energy. In a country where most people have seen new technology have improved their lives, for the most part, vastly, the distant future is less cynical than in the west.
Young Chinese see Jack Ma and Pony Ma, heads of social media giant Tencent, “more like rich men and successful businessmen” than clam-like visionaries, said Flex Yang, co-founder of Babel Finance, a Hong Kong-based provider of cryptocurrency financial services.
The two Mas, who are not related, were simply “in the right place at the right time,” said Mr. Yang.
Jack Ma and Mr. Musk shared a stage at a technology conference in Shanghai in 2019. There has never been a more unsuitable couple. Mr. Ma was serious and committed and felt comfortable in the role of the conference grandee. Mr. Musk was fidgety and funny. The two talked a lot past each other. Mr. Ma said the answer to super-intelligent machines is better education for people. Mr. Musk just laughed at that.
In a compilation of uncomfortable moments from the event posted on the Bilibili video site, the comments are brutal, mainly towards Mr. Ma.
“This is the person a god was once looked up to in China,” wrote one person. “In the presence of a real master, he is like a performing ape.”
Alibaba declined to comment.