Chinese state media have hit out at Tesla’s “arrogant response” after a car owner went viral by climbing on top of a Model 3 sedan at an auto show to protest what she said was her car’s malfunction.
In videos circulating on social media on Monday, a woman, wearing a white T-shirt printed with the Chinese characters “brake failure,” climbed on a red Model 3 in Tesla’s booth at the Shanghai Auto Show and shouted “Tesla’s brake failed” to the crowd.
She was dragged away by security guards. On Tuesday, Shanghai police said the 32-year-old woman had been ordered into five-day detention for disrupting public order. Police said a fellow protester, a 31-year-old woman, received a warning.
Many internet users expressed sympathy toward the protesters. Struggling to get their voices heard through government channels, Chinese consumers sometimes feel compelled to resort to public stunts.
In the last viral incident, in 2019, a Chinese woman won a deal with Mercedes-Benz by crying about an oil leak problem while sitting on the hood of a car at a showroom, a move that inspired several copycat protests.
And Tesla’s harsh response following the incident only brought more trouble to the American carmaker.
On the microblogging site Weibo, Tesla said the woman was in a car accident in February due to speeding, but blamed it on the vehicle to ask for a refund. The company said the woman refused to have her car examined and declined other solutions proposed by Tesla.
“It’s impossible for us to meet her demands, because the demands are unreasonable,” Tesla’s Vice President Grace Tao told Chinese outlet Caijing following the protest. “I think she is quite professional. There should be someone behind.”
“She contributed to all the negative [publicity] recently,” Tao said, adding that Tesla is receiving increasing positive feedback from Chinese customers.
The uncompromising tone prompted strong backlash, as internet users attacked Tesla for failing to respect Chinese consumers. In a commentary on Tuesday, state-run news agency Xinhua added fuel to the row with an official warning to Tesla.
“The arrogant response from a Tesla executive does not make one feel their sincerity in solving the problem,” Xinhua said. “No matter which car company, they must treat the Chinese market with reverence, and sincerely accept the supervision of consumers.”
Tesla did not respond to a request for comment. Five minutes before midnight on Monday, it said in a second Weibo post that the company accepted the advice and criticism from Chinese internet users, but also vowed not to give in to unreasonable requests.
A potential image crisis in China would cause great damage for the carmaker, which sees the country as its biggest market in the long run. While many foreign consumer brands have suffered from the growing tensions between China and the West, Tesla is a rare American company that enjoys the government’s open support in the world’s second-largest economy.
Beijing allowed it to become the first foreign carmaker to build a wholly-owned plant in China and offered to issue a green card to Elon Musk, a self-proclaimed China lover. Many wealthy Chinese consumers worship Musk’s entrepreneurship and regard owning a Tesla as a status symbol.
But recent consumer complaints have put the carmaker under regulatory scrutiny. In February, Chinese regulators summoned Tesla over consumer reports on quality issues including unexpected acceleration, battery fires, and flaws in over-the-air software updates.
The Chinese government has recently launched a crackdown on tech giants at home to rein in their antitrust practices, in a demonstration of the government’s full control over the massive tech industry. Big-name companies including Alibaba, Tencent, and ByteDance have all pledged their obedience.
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Correction, April 23, 2021: A previous version of this article misstated that China issued a green card to Elon Musk. The country only offered to issue one. We regret the error.