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Elon Musk's Free Speech Absolutism Ends at China's Borders
Musk may be a hypocrite when it comes to his professed reverence for freedom and his management of Twitter, but his deference to the Chinese government speaks volumes.
Critics of Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter have been quick to call out his hypocrisy over free speech. Given that Musk’s professed adoration of liberal principles appears to cease where his foreign investments begin, the critics may have a point.
Musk’s acquisition of Twitter has been characterized as everything from a move that “puts our democracy at stake” to part of the effort to “save… democracy.” A writer at Foreign Policy went so far as to say “Twitter’s destruction would be a geopolitical catastrophe not only for the United States but also for the democratic world.” For Musk’s part, in early 2022 he said buying Twitter demonstrated his concern for the “function of democracy” and the “future of civilization.”
During the first few months of Musk’s control of Twitter, however, several incidents have already called into question his commitment to his self-proclaimed “free speech absolutist” position.
When Musk believed his family had been threatened — a claim many found to be a stretch — several prominent journalists and other critics of Musk were suspended. Twitter also implemented a short-lived ban on accounts promoting Twitter competitors. And although Musk often mixes jokes with serious commentary, some have found his “My pronouns are Prosecute/Fauci” Tweet to be an inexcusable call for the political prosecution of a government official for policy disagreements.
But while these mini-dramas captured the attention of the obsessives who dominate political Twitter, in terms of potential for hypocrisy, they are dwarfed by the one area where Musk’s financial interests and professed reverence for freedom most clearly and rather awkwardly intersect: China.
Musk’s Tesla began selling cars in 2014 in China and it quickly became the company’s second largest market. Four years later, Tesla announced that it would begin making vehicles there.
But when it comes to China’s human rights record, Musk has been mostly mum. Aside from a 2022 observation about China’s birth rate potentially leading to an eventual population collapse in the country, the public record is devoid of Musk criticism of China’s authoritarianism, its draconian Covid policies and restrictions, the lack of free speech and expression in the country, the cultural genocide of the country’s Uygher Muslims, or even China’s longtime ban of Musk’s latest acquisition, Twitter.
While a 2012 Tweet by Musk tweaks China (and Russia) for its anti-democracy stance at the United Nations, most of Musk’s public statements since have been markedly positive regarding the oppressive Communist regime.
Some of these could be categorized as merely broad and perfunctory. For instance, a 2019 response to a question about foreign ventures of Tesla in which Musk noted:
But at times, Musk has given the Chinese government the kind of boosterism in touting its accomplishments that would be at home in a Thomas Friedman column. In May 2022, Musk Tweeted:
It didn’t go unnoticed. In a reply, Chen Weihua, identified by Twitter as “China state-affiliated media” and widely known as a mouthpiece and apologist for the regime, bragged:
Earlier, in July 2018, Musk Tweeted even more unequivocally pro-China:
Musk followed this up with a photo of himself with Communist Chinese Party officials:
One can’t help wondering if part of the discussion of philosophy Musk had with his Chinese partners involved Musk’s take on socialism. In June 2018, Musk explained:
That same sentiment under various glosses is of course regularly used by the Chinese Communist Party to justify its control of its people and their economic, political, and social freedom.
So, we’re left with a rather glaring cognitive dissonance between Musk’s professed love for free speech and democracy and his lack of criticism of the CCP. Rather than call out the Chinese government for its despotic ways, Musk seems inclined on at least some occasions to mimic the CCP’s illiberal instincts.
Musk may altruistically claim that he is a free speech absolutist and that, when it comes to Twitter, he doesn’t “care about the economics at all,” as he claimed at the time of his purchase. But his apparent reluctance to irritate his Communist Chinese minders and put his financial interests in jeopardy speaks louder.
But perhaps worse than mere grubby hypocrisy for financial gain, there remains an even more disturbing possibility that Musk, among the richest and most powerful private citizens in the world, actually believes what he says about China.
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