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Elon Musk greeted with flattery and feasts during China trip

Musk's visit is a hot trending topic and his popularity comes despite rising US-China tensions, with keen interest shown in his comments on artificial intelligence and electric vehicles.

Reuters
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Tesla CEO Elon Musk walks next to Tesla senior vice-president Tom Zhu and vice-president Grace Tao as he leaves a restaurant in Beijing, China, May 31. Photo: Reuters
Tesla CEO Elon Musk walks next to Tesla senior vice-president Tom Zhu and vice-president Grace Tao as he leaves a restaurant in Beijing, China, May 31. Photo: Reuters

He's "a pioneer", "Brother Ma" and some want him to be US president. Billionaire Elon Musk has been showered with praise by the Chinese public during his trip to China and while also securing audiences with three government ministers.

Since landing in Beijing on Tuesday, the Tesla Inc chief executive has met with China's foreign, commerce and industry ministers and has dined with Zeng Yuqun, chairman of top battery supplier CATL.

While little is known of those discussions – the industry ministry has only said Musk and its head Jin Zhuanglong exchanged views about the development of electric vehicles and connected cars – that hasn't stopped an outpouring of enthusiasm for Musk on Chinese social media.

"He's a global idol," commented one user. "Elon Musk is just great, if only China could have someone like Elon Musk," said another.

Musk's unannounced trip is the latest by a major US CEO to China since the country reversed its zero-Covid policy and reopened its borders. Apple's Tim Cook visited in March, while JP Morgan's Jamie Dimon and Starbucks' Laxman Narasimhan are also in China this week.

But compared to lower-key welcomes for his counterparts, Musk's visit is a hot trending topic and his popularity comes despite rising US-China tensions, with keen interest shown in his comments on artificial intelligence and electric vehicles.

Even the menu for the 16-course meal at the upmarket Man Fu Yan restaurant he shared with CATL's Zeng on Tuesday evening was effusive, photos posted on social media showed.

Illustrated with two rearing horses – a play on the character for horse used in Musk's Chinese name – the menu described Tesla as a dark horse "standing out from traditional automotive companies".

In contrast to the social media storm in China and his propensity at home to make waves on Twitter (which he now owns), Musk has yet to make any public statements during his trip. Twitter is blocked in China.

Tesla and CATL did not respond to requests for comment. The commerce ministry also did not respond to a request for comment. The foreign ministry quoted the billionaire as describing the US and China economies as "conjoined twins" and saying that he was opposed to their decoupling.

Musk's first visit to China in three years comes as Tesla faces intensifying competition from Chinese-made electric vehicles and some uncertainty about expansion plans for the Shanghai plant.

The factory produced over 700,000 Model Y and Model 3 vehicles last year, more than half of the company's global output.

It was not clear if Tesla is facing any regulatory hurdles to expanding the plant.

Investors are also keen to know whether China regulators will clear the release of Tesla's advanced driver assistance features. The features are available in the US as part of the "Full Self Driving" software it sells for US$15,000 (RM69,367) per vehicle.

Musk is expected to meet other senior Chinese officials and visit the Shanghai plant later in the week, sources have said, though it was not clear who exactly he would meet or what issues they would discuss.

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