The Big Ideas

'China Turns to Elon Musk as Technology Dreams Sour'

The New York Times

Raymond Zhong | The New York Times
'China Turns to Elon Musk as Technology Dreams Sour'
'China Turns to Elon Musk as Technology Dreams Sour'
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March 11, 2021
BIG IDEA | ‘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 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 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.’

‘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 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 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.’

‘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 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 track SpaceX’s every launch.’

‘In a long thread about Mr. 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.’

‘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 Mr. 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,” Mr. Yan said. Tech bosses “have all become cardboard cutouts,” he said, and investors won’t touch ideas that seem remotely “crazy.” ’

‘Mr. Musk’s acolytes are a passionate bunch everywhere.

‘Still, Mr. 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.’

‘Young Chinese people see Jack Ma and Pony Ma, head of the 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.’