Chinese state media called out Elon Musk this week for responding to a post about the origin of the coronavirus, potentially signaling strained relations between the Tesla CEO and the country where many of the cars’ parts are manufactured.
The Global Times, a state-backed newspaper known for its hawkish takes on U.S.-China relations, posted an essay on social media this week criticizing Musk for advancing a “conspiracy theory” about the coronavirus.
“At the same time, these remarks of his have been continuously used by those US right-wing and anti-China media hostile to China as material to frame China,” the publication wrote.
Musk was responding to a tweet that brought up an unfounded conspiracy theory that Anthony S. Fauci, the former chief medical adviser to President Biden, funded the creation of the coronavirus.
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“He did it via a pass-through organization (EcoHealth),” Musk responded in a tweet. Musk has previously pushed back on covid restrictions during the pandemic and called for Fauci to be prosecuted. He also said last year that China’s “zero covid policy,” which was relaxed at the end of last year, made business difficult for Tesla.
Tension with China could cost Musk dearly. In China, companies that make comments deemed hostile by Beijing have been swiftly targeted with restrictions crippling their business in the country. China accounts for about 40 percent of Tesla sales, and the company has one of its biggest factories in Shanghai.
The outspoken leader of Twitter and Tesla has already drawn criticism from advocacy groups and some users since taking over the social media site last year, in part for reinstating controversial banned accounts and most recently for defending “Dilbert” creator Scott Adams after several newspapers dropped the comic following racist tweets by Adams. Musk has become a polarizing figure — some conservative leaders have praised his pledge to prioritize “free speech” online, but critics have expressed concern that his policies could increase hate speech on the site.
Musk did not immediately respond to a request for comment. CNBC earlier reported on the Global Times’ post.
In the Global Times’ post, the publication accused Musk of reposting a “conspiracy theory that slanders China.” It is referring to the unfounded Fauci allegations, which resurfaced after a report that the U.S. Energy Department concluded the pandemic probably was caused by a leak from a laboratory in Wuhan. (There are two primary theories of how the coronavirus infected humans, according to The Washington Post’s Philip Bump.)
Musk’s freewheeling takes on world issues have at times attracted admiration from Beijing, though the latest condemnation highlights the tenuous terms of the relationship.
In October last year he garnered praise from China’s then-ambassador to the United States, Qin Gang, now China’s foreign minister, after the Tesla CEO suggested offering more control over Taiwan to Chinese authorities in the form of a special economic zone. The comments were sharply criticized by Taiwanese officials.
Musk’s criticism of U.S. institutions has also been embraced by Beijing. Last week, China’s Foreign Ministry released a list of American “hegemonic” misdeeds, where it cited Musk’s accusations of government censorship at Twitter among proof of chronic U.S. “abuse” of the international community.