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Elon Musk has become a darling of the right after taking vocal positions on the culture wars, immigration, and transgenderism. But the Canadian-born South African, now a naturalized U.S. citizen, doesn’t quite fit with American conservatives and the MAGA crowd when it comes to one big issue: China.

Musk is actually a dove on China, defying not just conservatives, but also the bipartisan consensus in the United States that Beijing is America’s top geopolitical threat. It’s pretty obvious why Musk is soft on Beijing: Tesla does big business in Communist China, even as it and other Musk companies like SpaceX receive billions in U.S. government subsidies and contracts.

Tesla Is Big on China

China was Tesla’s second-largest market in 2023, accounting for $21.7 billion in revenue or 22 percent of its total sales last year, according to the company’s 2023 annual report.

Tesla is an American company. But its cars sold in China are made in China. Its China-manufactured cars are also exported to other markets, including Europe and Australia.

Musk’s electric vehicle company began making cars in China in 2019 with the opening of its Shanghai Gigafactory.

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The Shanghai Gigafactory is one of Tesla’s seven manufacturing locations worldwide. Five are in the United States. An eighth plant, in Mexico, is in the works.

In 2022, Tesla described the Shanghai Gigafactory as its “main export hub.” In its 2023 annual report, Tesla said it plans on building a new Megafactory — a manufacturing plant for its Megapack utility-scale energy storage units — in Shanghai.

Tesla also sources materials for its EVs in China. For example, it relies on Chinese companies for roughly 40 percent of its electric vehicle battery supply chain.

China is a fiercely competitive market in which China’s party-state system plays a strong role in picking winners and losers through massive subsidies and heavy regulation.

Tesla has received numerous incentives from the Chinese Communist Party to operate locally.

The CCP likes Musk. And Musk likes operating in China. He described the Tesla China team as “the best quality, lowest cost and also low drama.”

Musk’s Views on China

For a foreign company to operate and thrive in China, it’s crucial to remain on the good side of the party-state. This is something Musk has recognized in private. Musk’s biographer Walter Isaacson writes that he acknowledged that “Twitter would indeed have to be careful about the words it used regarding China, because Tesla’s business could be threatened.”

As a result, Musk has largely limited his public comments on China to banal talk of bilateral cooperation and the occasional promotion of Beijing’s talking points.

He’s described the U.S. and China as “conjoined twins” and told former presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy that the two countries “are extremely dependent on each other.”

Musk, who has met with Chinese leader Xi Jinping several times, has also said that Taiwan should join China as a “special administrative region” — like Hong Kong and Macau.

Behind the scenes, Musk has expressed darker views about China.

Musk, according to Isaacson, told media personality Bari Weiss in 2022 that there were two sides to China’s persecution of the Uyghurs. More than a million Uyghurs — a predominantly Muslim Turkic community — have been put into internment camps for the purposes of “re-education” — communist lingo for brainwashing. Musk’s comments appear to be justifying China’s treatment of the Uyghurs to some degree.

(For more on the persecution of Uyghur Muslims in China, listen to my interview with Uyghur American advocate Nury Turkel.)

Tesla and Human Rights in Xinjiang

It’s not just Musk’s views on China’s treatment of the Uyghurs that are troubling. Tesla has shown a disregard for Uyghur rights.

In 2022, Tesla opened its first showroom in Xinjiang, the administrative region encompassing the Uyghur homeland where forced labor is widespread and over a million Uyghurs were put into re-education camps beginning in 2017.

Tesla, like most automakers in China, has a high risk of exposure to aluminum and lithium supply chains that use Uyghur forced labor.

Roughly ten percent of the world’s aluminum is produced in Xinjiang, according to Human Rights Watch (HRW). Tesla has been transparent to some degree about its materials and parts sourcing, but it informed HRW that “it has not mapped its full aluminum supply chain for all products.” HRW assessed there is risk that the company’s aluminum could be sourced from Xinjiang-based smelters that use Uyghur forced labor transfers and partner with the Xinjiang Production and Construction Corps (XPCC), a paramilitary body that oversees the forced Uyghur labor program.

An investigation by the Washington Post last year reveals that Tesla sources exterior parts from Beijing WKW, which is supplied by Xinjiang Zhonghe — a group also linked to the XPCC and labor transfers.

Tesla, like Ford and other automakers, also sources its batteries from CATL, the world’s largest producer of EV batteries. CATL has come under fire for its ties to Xinjiang Zhicun Lithium, another company tied to Uyghur labor transfers.

CATL has since formally divested in Xinjiang Zhicun Lithium. But last year, Senator Marco Rubio alleged that the divestment was a ruse, with CATL effectively retaining significant control over the company through a proxy.

Among EV players, Tesla is not alone in its potential exposure to Uyghur forced labor. But Musk’s actions and beliefs suggest he’s willing to go quite far to keep Beijing on his side.

Arif Rafiq is the editor of Globely News. Rafiq has contributed commentary and analysis on global issues for publications such as Foreign Affairs, Foreign Policy, the New Republic, the New York Times, and POLITICO Magazine.

He has appeared on numerous broadcast outlets, including Al Jazeera English, the BBC World Service, CNN International, and National Public Radio.

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