Elon Musk Puts Profits Before Human Rights

For a businessman desperate to sell cars in China and to get back in good graces with the authorities, opening a storeroom in a place declared off-limits by much of the civilized world might be wise in the short term. This business gamble signals to the Chinese, “We believe you — so in return believe in our product.”

This seems to be Tesla’s conclusion after announcing a showroom opening in China’s Xinjiang province. Precisely here President Joe Biden’s administration and human rights organization have condemned China’s totalitarian rulers for a genocide against the Uyghur Muslim population.

With his wager, Tesla’s high-profile owner, Elon Musk, has elevated the voltage risk of wading into a human-rights outrage that has disrupted other Western companies.

Now United States government policy and rare bipartisan congressional wrath have Musk and Tesla in the crosshairs.

Musk’s short-term move may have long-term implications.

In Xinjiang, China’s Communist tyrants have reportedly detained over a million Uyghurs and other members of Muslim minority groups in political reeducation camps. The vast region remains enveloped in a repressive security blanket, where Muslim residents suffer strict controls in daily life.

Chinese officials have praised Tesla’s choice, a shift from their criticism of the company and Musk over the past year. Tesla heralded the new showroom’s opening on an official account on Chinese social media site Weibo. “On the last day of 2021, we meet in Xinjiang. In 2022, let us together launch Xinjiang on its electric journey!” Tesla cynically announced.

Harsh criticism came in response from across the political spectrum.

“By doing business in China's Xinjiang Province, where millions of Uyghur Muslims are being held in concentration camps and forced labor facilities, Tesla is supporting genocide,” the anti-Israel Council on American-Islamic Relations tweeted.

Given recent American policy decisions, the showroom inauguration’s timing is startling. Last month Biden signed the overwhelmingly bipartisan Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, which bans imports from Xinjiang unless companies can prove that they did make their products with forced labor.

The act’s author, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), Senate Foreign Relations Committee ranking member, made his disappointment with Musk abundantly apparent. “Right after President Biden signed Sen. Rubio’s Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act into law, Tesla opened a store in Xinjiang,” he tweeted. “Nationless corporations are helping the Chinese Communist Party cover up genocide and slave labor in the region.”

In a letter to Tesla and SpaceX CEO Musk, Democrats Bill Pascrell and Earl Blumenauer, who chair two House of Representatives Ways and Means Committee subcommittees, expressed similar sentiments. “Your misguided expansion into the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region sets a poor example and further empowers the CCP [Chinese Communist Party government] at a fraught moment,” they wrote. The two representatives also expressed a deep interest “in exploring ways to improve U.S. national security imperiled by the offshoring of our industrial capacity and undermining of our national security by contributing to labor abuses.”

During a recent press conference, White House spokesperson Jen Psaki also made the Biden administration’s ire unmistakable.

“Weve been clear about our views on the ongoing genocide and crimes against humanity in Xinjiang,” she said. “As weve said before, companies that fail to address forced labor in their supply chains and other human rights abuses face serious legal, reputational, and consumer risk, not only in the United States but in Europe and around the world.”

Human Rights Watch says that China has detained one million Uyghur Muslims in re-education” camps. Here beatings, forced labor, medical experiments, and coerced abortions typify the abusive camp regimen. 

China's Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang Wenbin accused Tesla showroom critics of “hypocrisy. They “carry out economic coercion and political repression against China under the guise of human rights,” he propagandized.

Why Tesla opted for currying favor with Beijing is obvious.

According to reports, Tesla’s Electric Vehicle sales in China are shrinking. In 2021, Tesla's Chinese market share of battery and plug-in electric vehicles fell to about 7 percent from 9 percent. 

Unhappy with Musk for a variety of reasons, in 2021 the Chinese government ordered a recall of almost all 285,000 cars Tesla has sold in China to address an alleged software flaw. Simultaneously, the People’s Republic of China banned Tesla from some government facilities over concerns of data transfers to the United States. 

According to Sina Tech, Tesla has more than 200 stores in China and opened Tesla’s first factory outside the United States in Shanghai in 2019. The new showroom in Xinjiang’s capital, Urumqi, is Tesla’s 11th in northwestern China. Other foreign auto brands, including Volkswagen, General Motors, and Nissan, also have Urumqi showrooms.

Yet these firms are not Tesla. The high-profile company and the high-flying Musk are much more prominent offenders in the eyes of many. Scott Paul, president of the American trade group Alliance for American Manufacturing, was “blunt: Any company doing business in Xinjiang is complicit in the cultural genocide taking place there. But Tesla’s actions are especially despicable.” Consumers and citizens should remember this in future product and policy choices.


Andrew E. Harrod holds a Ph.D. from the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a JD from the George Washington University Law School and is admitted to the Virginia State Bar. He is a Middle East Campus Watch Fellow and a fellow with the Lawfare Project and can be followed online at @AEHarrod.

Photo Illustration by Monica Showalter with use of images by Einstraus, via Wikipedia // CC BY-SA 2.0, and PXHere  // CC0 public domain.

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