Zoo’s troubles began shortly after Chinese internet police traced a parody Twitter account of Chinese leader Xi Jinping to her. Although the Chinese student was in Australia, officials called her through her father’s phone, pressing her to delete the account. When she did not comply, officials harassed her parents—who were in China—by summoning them to the police station regularly and threatening jail time. Their movements and online communication were also monitored.
“We became estranged. My father has not spoken to me in years,” Zoo told VICE World News, using a pseudonym to avoid government reprisals. Her experience underscored how far Chinese authorities are willing to go to silence its critics on Twitter, even if it sometimes means hunting them down one by one and intimidating them or their families into submission. Now, it may have a new tool.
Until recently, Beijing did not have the leverage to directly interfere with the operations of Twitter, which has become an influential public square of American politics and even international affairs. Unlike some other U.S. companies, Twitter has never overturned China’s ban to enter its domestic market. On the other hand, Microsoft’s LinkedIn and Bing censored their content and search results to comply with China’s internet controls. Twitter’s lack of presence in China means it’s been largely free from the country’s vast censorship apparatus.
But if his acquisition of Twitter goes through, Elon Musk could be the missing link Beijing is looking for to exert pressure on the social media company. Given Tesla’s growing presence and Musk’s extensive commercial interests in China, analysts and dissidents fear the billionaire’s ownership of Twitter could give Beijing further means to police speech on the platform.
“The big concern I have is that Musk could succumb to coercive economic leverage from Beijing,” said Fergus Ryan, a senior analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, citing China’s record of using business interests to extract political concessions.
There are good reasons to be concerned. The American entrepreneur has been eager to speak up against what he deems as erosion of free speech at home but has never challenged the actions of Beijing, which imposes strict controls on the civil liberties of 1.4 billion people and subjects them to intrusive and comprehensive censorship.
While other U.S. executives and companies have paid the price for perceived slights against the Chinese authorities, Musk has stayed in the good graces of the Chinese government.
In 2021, the electric carmaker went as far as to open a new showroom in Xinjiang, even as China’s repression of Muslim minorities in the region drew international scrutiny and was labelled by Washington as a genocide. This stood in contrast with global companies like Patagonia and Marks and Spencer, which have withdrawn from the region or even China entirely, citing Beijing’s abuses.
And despite opposing content moderation, Musk held up WeChat as a model. Widely used across the country, the app combines the functions of Facebook, WhatsApp, Uber, and Paypal, and has become an essential part of life in China. Its indispensability, however, has also made it a convenient tool for the Chinese government to conduct mass surveillance and control information flow.
“We don’t have anything like that outside of China. So I think such an app would be really useful,” Musk said at a summit this week. “It’s either convert Twitter to that or start something new.”
Despite Musk’s seemingly cordial ties with China, the relationship is precarious and could be jeopardized by a single misstep—a possibility that might even give the Tesla CEO and his company’s shareholders pause. “Elon Musk has come out as a free speech absolutist. But there are limits to that if your economic market share in China or your access to Chinese supply chains comes under threat,” said James Bowen, a policy fellow at the Australian think tank Perth USAsia Center.
In some cases, it took only a single tweet to erase years of goodwill. In 2019, China suspended domestic broadcast of NBA games, costing the league $4 billion worth in business, after a team official retweeted an image in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests—a move Beijing saw as a challenge to its national sovereignty.
The tweet was swiftly deleted and the league, which had built a massive audience in the country over decades, apologized for offending its Chinese fans. It took 18 months for the games to be reinstated. Given China’s willingness to weaponize businesses’ dependence on the Chinese market for growth and suppliers for parts, many Western entities have made concessions to its censorship requests, Bowen said.
The bigger the piece of the pie, the more is at stake. As Tesla earns a quarter of its global revenues from China and relies heavily on its supply chains in the country, “the Chinese state has a pretty clear avenue to exert influence over decision-making that might be made on Twitter,” Bowen said.
“Nationalism is very infectious in China and most people don’t want to be buying from a company that’s seen as damaging the country’s interests.”
There are further ways China could hurt Tesla. Besides cutting off the preferential access and perks, such as tax breaks, cheap loans, and subsidies that have allowed the manufacturer to thrive, China could also put pressure on the company by discouraging local consumers from purchasing its cars.
“Nationalism is very infectious in China and most people don’t want to be buying from a company that’s seen as damaging the country’s interests,” said Bonnie Glaser, director of the Asia Program at the German Marshall Fund of the United States.
These boycott campaigns can take a major toll on brands. After state outlets directed outrage at foreign labels such as H&M, Nike, and Burberry for refusing to use cotton from Xinjiang over human rights concerns last year, their revenues tumbled and a number of their physical stores in China shuttered.
“It really depends on how Elon Musk manages this and if he is able to compartmentalize these two projects,” said Glaser. “That would be very difficult because China would see opportunities.”
China could have a wide range of demands from Twitter, analysts say. It could potentially export its censorship to the platform, for instance, requiring it to depict self-governed Taiwan as part of China, a stance it has pressured universities, corporations, and international organizations, including the World Health Organization, to adopt. In 2019, Apple bowed to China and blocked the Taiwanese flag from the emoji keyboard for iPhone users in Hong Kong and Macau. International and American airlines removed references implying Taiwan is an independent country from their websites.
It could also make data requests on certain accounts to identify their users, facilitating its digital manhunt for critics.
Defiance of such requests could draw the ire of the Chinese authorities, while compliance would not sit well with their home governments and critics—a dilemma for a growing number of foreign companies operating in China. LinkedIn pulled out from the country last year, citing “a significantly more challenging operating environment and greater compliance requirements.” Before the company’s withdrawal, LinkedIn had been criticized for blocking out the profiles of journalists and activists on its localized site.
Speaking at FT’s Future of the Car Summit earlier this month, Elon Musk rejected the suggestions that Tesla could affect his plans for Twitter, or vice versa. “I’ve seen no indication to that effect,” said Musk. Musk’s family office and Tesla’s press office did not respond to requests for comment.
According to Twitter’s transparency report, from 2012 to 2021, it has received only one information request from the Chinese authorities, which it did not comply with. It has never removed content on the basis of a legal demand from them, the report says. A Twitter spokesperson declined to comment.
In a regular press briefing last month, Wang Wenbin, a spokesman for China’s Foreign Ministry, dismissed a question on whether China would exercise leverage on Tesla to influence content on Twitter. “I can tell you are very good at speculating, but without any basis,” Wang said.
But why would China care so much about Twitter, which most of its residents could not access unless with a VPN? Experts say it is part of a wider campaign to control the discourse on China, particularly its image as a global power. “They want to use platforms like Twitter to try and shape global public opinion for their own geo-political purposes,” said Ryan. “From their perspective, the global dominance of global western media results in a maliciously distorted account of Chinese realities.”
To that end, China has poured immense resources into promoting its own narrative on the social media platform. It has deployed a new cohort of diplomats and an army of bots to amplify their voices.
From 2019 to 2020, Twitter has identified and removed nearly 29,000 accounts originating from China that were involved in manipulative and coordinated activities. Supported by a network of 350,000 spam accounts, they churned out propaganda, including praising China’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and depicting Hong Kong’s protests as violent. Twitter said it found reliable evidence that suggests these accounts are part of a coordinated state-backed operation.
However, part of Musk's vision for Twitter, such as to rid the platform of spam bots, could hamper the Chinese government's efforts to use the platform as a conduit for its external propaganda, Ryan said.
But his drive to “authenticate all real humans" on Twitter could also threaten the ability of Chinese dissidents to express their opinions, aiding the Chinese government’s continuing drive to muzzle critics.
My fear is that after his purchase of Twitter, Musk would become an accomplice to China’s censorship machine.
One of such victims is Murong Xuecun. The prominent writer was interrogated for four hours in 2019, after Chinese authorities unearthed two satirical cartoons of Xi he retweeted three years ago using an account with his well-known pen name. The 48-year-old was accused of insulting China’s leader, a crime that could see him imprisoned for up to three years, but was eventually let go.
“My ordeal is already considered the mildest form of punishment. Other people I know were detained for longer periods, directly arrested and convicted,” said Murong, who now lives in Australia. By his estimate, Chinese authorities have applied the same playbook on tens of thousands of Chinese users during that period.
A crowdsourced database documented more than 2,300 cases of Chinese residents who were punished for online remarks in recent years. More than 100 cases were due to comments on Twitter. In one case in 2019, a man in the Southwestern city of Kunming was sentenced to two years in jail under the vague crime of “picking quarrels and provoking trouble” over 20 tweets about Hong Kong’s protests and the Tiananmen Square massacre.
The Chinese government has continued these efforts. Murong worries that if Twitter’s owner yielded to pressure from Beijing, not only their freedom of speech but also their safety would be at stake. “My fear is that after his purchase of Twitter, Musk would become an accomplice to China’s censorship machine,” he said.
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