Elon Musk, other U.S. CEOs flock to China with Eye on Major Market

Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China via AP
China’s Foreign Minister Qin Gang, right, poses for photos with Tesla Ltd. CEO Elon Musk in Beijing on May 30.

DUYUN, China — Chief executive officers of major U.S. companies have resumed their visits to China after a three-year hiatus due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Beijing’s unusually generous welcome, such as offering ministerial-level meetings, is believed to be intended not only to attract investment but also to counter Washington, which is deepening its military and diplomatic confrontation with China.

Elon Musk, CEO of electric vehicle maker Tesla, visited Beijing and Shanghai for three days last week. It was his first visit to China in three years. According to Reuters, he met with State Councilor and Foreign Minister Qin Gang, Commerce Minister Wang Wentao and Vice Premier Ding Xuexiang, the sixth-ranked Communist Party official.

Musk, who is known for his brash behavior, was conspicuously considerate toward his Chinese hosts. He said Chinese people were hardworking and smart, telling Qin the country’s advancement was inevitable. He also expressed his intention to expand his business in China, saying the United States and China are “conjoined twins” with mutual interests, and that he was opposed to decoupling.

China is Tesla’s second-largest market after the United States, and the company has its largest factory in Shanghai.

Musk usually makes numerous posts on Twitter — which he owns — but refrained from tweeting during his stay in China, apparently because he took into consideration the fact that China has restrictions on the use of foreign social media such as Twitter.

At the end of May, the CEOs of U.S. coffee chain Starbucks Corp. and banking giant JPMorgan Chase & Co. also visited China and reportedly met with government officials.

U.S. semiconductor maker Nvidia Corp.’s CEO Jensen Huang is also reportedly scheduled to visit China this month.

U.S. business leaders’ visits to Beijing in the quest to access its big market began gradually in earnest around the time China eliminated mandatory quarantine upon entering the country in January.

European countries are also actively involved. During his visit to China last November, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was accompanied by the heads of more than a dozen German companies, including Volkswagen AG.

At a press conference at the end of May, China’s Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Mao Ning said, “China always welcomes business figures from all countries, including Mr. Musk, to visit China for a deeper understanding of the country and mutually beneficial cooperation.”

The expansion of foreign investment was one of the pillars of China’s economic policy at the National People’s Congress in March.

In recent years, Washington has placed stricter restrictions on exports of U.S. semiconductors and other high-tech products to China. Beijing appears to be aiming to strengthen relations with U.S. companies and mitigate the impact of these restrictions as much as possible.

At the latest Asia Security Summit, or Shangri-La Dialogue, held in Singapore, Washington proposed U.S.-China defense ministerial talks, but Beijing refused so the talks did not take place. This shows that China is separating politics and economics in its relationship with the United States.

On the other hand, Japanese companies, which are aligned with the United States on export controls, have remained cautious about visiting China. The detention in March of a Japanese employee of Astellas Pharma Inc. on suspicion of violating a Chinese anti-spy law also seems to have influenced this stance.