SAN FRANCISCO — When Elon Musk opened a Tesla factory in Shanghai in 2019, the Chinese government greeted him with billions of dollars worth of cheap land, credit, tax breaks and subsidies. “I really believe that China is the future,” Mr Musk said.

Tesla’s path has been lucrative ever since, with a quarter of the company’s sales coming from China in 2021, but not without problems. The company faced a Consumer and Regulatory Revolt in China last year due to manufacturing defects.

With his deal to take over Twitter, Mr. Musk’s ties with China have become even more strained.

Like all foreign investors in China, he runs Tesla to the delight of Chinese authorities, who have shown a willingness to influence or punish companies crossing political red lines. Even Apple, the most valuable company in the world, has given in to Chinese demandsincluding censorship of the App Store.

Mr Musk’s extensive investments in China could be jeopardized if Twitter angers the Communist Party state, which has banned the platform at home but uses it extensively to advance Beijing’s foreign policy around the world – often with false or misleading information.

At the same time, China now has a sympathetic investor taking control of one of the world’s most influential megaphones. For example, Mr Musk said nothing publicly when Shanghai authorities shut down Tesla’s plant as part of citywide efforts to control the recent Covid-19 outbreak berating officials in Alameda County, California.for a similar move when the 2020 pandemic began.

“It’s worrying to think about what might be a conflict of interest in these situations when you look at the disinformation that could be coming out of China,” said Jessica Maddox, assistant professor of digital media technology at the University of Alabama. “As the current owner of this company, how would he deal with that since all his investments are tied up there, or most of them?”

Even Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon and one of Mr Musk’s biggest rivals in tech, space and now media, has chimed in – on Twitter – to question China’s potential influence on the platform. “Has the Chinese government just gained a little leverage over the town square?” Mr. Bezos wrote.

Mr. Musk has not detailed his plans to change Twitter other than promising to open it up as a free speech platform while banning bots and artificial accounts that populate its user base. Even this simple promise of bots could irk China’s propagandists who did it openly bought fake accounts and used it to undercut claims from human rights violations in Xinjiang. It’s not clear if he intends to restore accounts or remove labels identifying some of Beijing’s most prominent users as state officials.

Mr Musk did not respond to an email asking for comment. A spokeswoman for Twitter declined to comment.

What is clear is that China recognizes Twitter’s ability to disseminate information. The government banned Twitter in 2009 amid ethnic unrest between Muslims and Han Chinese in Urumqi, the capital of Xinjiang, the western region where the government later got its start a mass incarceration and re-education campaign that the United States has declared genocide.

Despite the ban, China stepped up its own efforts to use the platform to expand the country’s influence abroad. These moves intensified in 2019 as images of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong circulated across the global internet. China’s state media pushed back with tactics Often reserved for his home audience, he accused the Central Intelligence Agency of orchestrating the protests, repeatedly broadcasting garish videos of violence by protesters while ignoring police brutality against the crowd.

A growing chorus of Chinese diplomats, many new to Twitter, began echoing the harsh tone of state media, shouting down critics and targeting countries that offered encouragement. Afterwards described as “Wolf Warriors”. a popular nationalist film, these officials received assistance from a dismal mass of bot-like accounts. By the end of 2019, Twitter had recognized and eliminated many accounts. Facebook and YouTube followed with their own purges.

Undaunted, the Chinese government redoubled its efforts when the coronavirus pandemic began. Many of the diplomats and state media officials used Twitter spreading conspiracy theoriesarguing that the coronavirus was released from a US bioweapons lab and questioning the safety of mRNA vaccines.

Since then, inauthentic networks of bots posting alongside diplomats and state media have circulated videos of them arguing human rights violation in Xinjiang; downplaying the Disappearance of Peng Shuai, the Chinese tennis pro who accused a top Chinese official of sexual assault; and polishing the success of the Olympic Winter Games this year in Beijing.

Meanwhile, Twitter has released reports about the networks, often with the help of cybersecurity experts, who have linked them to the Chinese government or the Chinese Communist Party. The company was one of the first to describe government-backed accounts, and more recently links to government media, as “affiliated with the Chinese state.”

Even with knowledge of China’s techniques, Twitter has had a hard time stopping the country’s information campaigns, said Darren Linvill, a Clemson University professor who studies disinformation on social media.

“It doesn’t matter if a single account or even thousands of accounts are banned,” he said in a written response. “They are creating more at an amazing rate, and by the time the account is banned (which is often very quick), the account has already done its job.”

“A lot of disinformation, like what Russia did, revolves around creating or amplifying narratives. A lot of Chinese disinformation is about suppressing it,” he added.

As the new owner of Twitter, Mr Musk could also face Chinese pressure on other issues. This includes not only calls for authorities to censor information online outside of China’s Great Firewall — such as descriptions of Taiwan as anything but a Chinese province — but also arrests of Twitter users in China.

In China, Mr Musk’s takeover has sparked fears officials will have even more leverage to censor their critics, some of whom are using technology to circumvent the Twitter ban.

Murong Xuecun, a well-known author, was interrogated by police for four hours in 2019 about two tweets he posted three years earlier. One showed a clearly photoshopped image of a naked Xi Jinping, China’s supreme leader, on top of a wrecking ball. The other was a cartoon showing Mr. Xi shooting Santa’s reindeer out of the sky.

“I think the Chinese government will be glad he bought Twitter,” Mr Murong said, “and in the coming days the government will use his business in China to pressure him to control Twitter and those to censor those who criticize the Communist Party and the Chinese government.”

Privately, he said he and his friends call the harassment of Twitter users in China the “complete Twitter purge.” Mr Murong estimated that police had questioned tens if not hundreds of thousands of people about their posts in recent years. The punitive campaign and the growing number of Chinese officials on Twitter show the government cares deeply about what’s being said on foreign social media, he said, describing the officials’ efforts as an attempt to “defuse public opinion and ideological wars” abroad respectively.

“This government has done many similar things and will not stop in the future,” he said. “I don’t know how Musk will deal with this pressure, but looking at his stance on China, I think he could turn into a big Chinese censorship machine.”

A spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, Wang Wenbin, on Tuesday brushed aside questions about Twitter and Mr Musk’s investments in the country. “I can say that you are very good at speculating, but without any basis,” he replied to a question.

Even Mr. Bezos changed his post about China’s potential influence on Twitter to suggest that Mr. Musk could be adept at striking a balance. “Musk is extremely good at handling this kind of complexity,” he wrote.

Even so, a likely outcome of Mr Musk’s acquisition will be less transparency. As a public company, Twitter faced pressure from shareholders as concerns about disinformation, account freezes and regulatory enforcement impacted its share price. That, in turn, forced the platform to explain its policy on countering information campaigns like those originating in China. With Mr. Musk planning to take the company private, there is less prerogative to respond to such requests.

“Even if I just take what he’s saying – his idea of ​​Twitter as a desirable tool to push more democratic, pro-democracy reforms here and abroad – he’s basically created a backdoor for China to come in and manipulate exactly that.” thing he has heralded as a strong defense of free speech,” said Angelo Carusone, president of watchdog group Media Matters for America.

Steven Lee Myers reported from San Francisco and Paul Mozur from Seoul. Claire Fu contributed research.



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