Does Musk's Twitter takeover mean China now has leverage over America's town square?

Britta Pedersen/Pool via AP

We live in an age of wonders, in which the world’s second-richest person can troll the richest on the platform the latter just bought. The purchase of which seemed to be an elaborate form of trolling too, a case of owning the libs literally.


There are many things to say about this tweet but let’s start with: God help this country, and this civilization, if Twitter now constitutes “the town square.”

I assume Musk is tempted to ban him for that. But he can’t or else he’ll end up blocked from ordering from Amazon anymore.

Bezos walked back what he said later after Musk’s cultish fan base let him have it:

Twitter isn’t “the town square.” It’s used by less than a quarter of the population, far less than Facebook, and only a small fraction of the user base posts regularly. If you’re interested in politics and news, being on Twitter feels more like spying on a newsroom Slack channel in which liberal reporters craft the day’s narratives on the fly than being in the town square. There are many other companies and industries that influence American culture more than Twitter does.

And I hate to tell Bezos, but China already has quite a lot of leverage over some of those.

On the other hand, it amused me to see conservatives scoffing at his jab at Musk despite the fact that our side complains often and correctly about the amount of power the CCP exerts over corporate America. We don’t need to rehash the episodes of Hollywood stars or NBA athletes apologizing to China for suggesting that democracy in Hong Kong is good or that Taiwan is a sovereign nation. We don’t need to revisit Mike Bloomberg and Ray Dalio, genuine titans of American finance, making excuses for Chinese totalitarianism. Beijing’s influence over American influencers is real and is to be feared. Meanwhile, it’s a matter of record that Tesla does big business in China, even operating a “gigafactory” in Shanghai. Three months ago the company opened a new showroom in, of all places, Xinjiang. That’s how eager Elon Musk is to build goodwill with the CCP: At a moment when Americans were debating whether to boycott the Beijing Olympics, he was expanding into ground zero of China’s genocide of the Uyghurs.


So, Bezos’s tweet might be trolling. Or it might be a case of one tech pioneer/private space-flight entrepreneur feeling jealousy towards another on a big day for his rival. But if any other tech mogul had purchased Twitter except Musk, a guy who’s now “coded” as a Republican simply because he’s criticized wokeness, the entire American right would share Bezos’s concern about China using Tesla’s access to its market as a way to pressure Musk on how Twitter operates. Instead, Fox Business has a story today about his tweet titled “Bezos launches China conspiracy theory after Musk buys Twitter.” Conspiracy theory?

This makes twice in a week in which the American right has allowed its hero-worship of a culture warrior to blind it to concerns with which it would normally sympathize as a matter of principle. Unlike Musk, though, at least Ron DeSantis really is a Republican and a conservative.

The Chinese government insists that it won’t interfere with Musk-owned Twitter. But if you don’t think Bezos is right to worry, here’s a reminder this morning from Chinese state media about what sort of cards Beijing is holding here:


“Tesla produces half of its automobiles in Shanghai, where it enjoys tax breaks, and depends on local suppliers for critical components,” notes Reuters. Bloomberg News is worried too:

If there is one government that has reason to welcome Musk taking control of Twitter Inc., it is probably in Beijing. It now has a friendly face in charge of a global channel for information – and misinformation – that is central to Chinese authorities’ efforts to seed and amplify narratives favorable to the Communist Party state.

Musk projects a maverick image at home in the U.S., thumbing his nose at the Securities and Exchange Commission, insulting critics and mocking President Joe Biden. When it comes to China, the world’s richest man adopts a more deferential persona. “I love China,” Musk said on meeting Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing in 2019. “The economic prosperity that China has achieved is truly amazing, especially in infrastructure!” he tweeted when the party celebrated its centenary last July 1. “China rocks,” he told a podcast in 2020

“China will not hesitate to use any leverage it has,” said Duncan Clark, chairman of Beijing-based investment consulting firm BDA China Ltd., who studies the country’s internet market. “What we know about this place is that any way to gain some tactical advantage is normally taken.”


“China rocks.” When Disney complained about Florida’s “don’t say gay” bill, DeSantis rightly challenged them by demanding to know why they’re not offended by China’s grotesque human rights abuses. The same logic might be applied to Musk. If he’s so committed to free speech that he’s willing to drop $44 billion on Twitter so that guys with Pepe avatars who’ve been banned since 2016 can post again, why isn’t he committed enough to free speech in China to at least avoid opening a showroom in Xinjiang? Does free speech in Hong Kong not matter?

Oh well. Looks like the great partisan self-sorting has already begun on Twitter:

Some conservatives are speculating that they’ve gained followers today because the libs who run Twitter have quietly unbanned thousands of unfairly silenced right-wingers. I doubt it. More likely it’s that thousands of people who quit Twitter (or never opened an account to begin with) have come flooding in on the news that there’s a new sheriff in town. We’ll see how new he is the first time there’s a major controversy on Twitter involving the CCP. Here’s hoping he’s equal to the task.


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