Tesla chief Elon Musk full of praise for Chinese 'energy and vigour' after meeting Vice-President Wang Qishan in Beijing

President’s right-hand man invites entrepreneur to the country’s political heart as more American tariffs loom

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 4:02pm
UPDATED : Friday, 13 July, 2018, 11:40pm

China rolled out the red carpet for US business again on Thursday, with a meeting between Chinese Vice-President Wang Qishan and Tesla chief Elon Musk under the shadow of more American tariffs.

The meeting was the second between top Chinese leaders and representatives of foreign companies in less than a month.

Musk said he and Wang discussed “history, philosophy and luck” at Zhongnanhai, the former imperial garden in Beijing that is now the headquarters of the Communist Party and Chinese government.

“Excellent meetings with senior leaders in China. Very thoughtful about the long-term future,” Musk wrote on Twitter.

The talks wrapped up Musk’s three-day trip to Beijing and Shanghai, where Tesla is setting up its first overseas assembly plant able to make half a million electric cars a year. The factory will be a beachhead in the world’s biggest car market and the largest overseas manufacturing investment in Shanghai.

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Chinese leaders have been reaching out to foreign companies and US politicians since efforts to avert a trade war failed.

Both countries imposed tariffs on each other’s goods last week, with the US threatening on Tuesday to target an additional US$200 billion in imports from China.

Musk was a member of US President Donald Trump’s business advisory council, but he quit in June last year over Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the Paris climate agreement.

Chinese officials have called on US companies to lobby the White House to safeguard their interests.

Late last month, Chinese President Xi Jinping also assured American executives from UPS, Pfizer, Cargill, Prologis and Goldman Sachs that China’s market would remain opened to foreign investors.

Wang also met Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel this week as the US politician sought to lock in a US$1.3

billion deal for a Chinese company to assemble railcars in Chicago. Emanuel said he had not initially expected to meet Wang.

Chinese official media did not give details of Wang’s meeting with Musk or Emanuel, but Emanuel said China wanted “to communicate”.

Wang, who has gained a reputation as a “firefighter” for his capacity to tackle tough issues, is understood to be one of the key officials handling Sino-US relations.

Is Tesla’s Shanghai plant announcement a matter of auspicious timing?

Renmin University international relations professor Shi Yinhong said the meetings with US businesses were an attempt to court their opposition to Trump’s tariffs.

“But that does not mean China intends to restart negotiations with the US,” Shi said.

A foreign business source said Wang was “offering his services to find a way out” of the tariff war, but would maintain a low profile.

“Wang Qishan will always play an important role in anything given his knowledge, sway and network,” the source said.

Wei Jianguo, a former commerce vice-minister, said the meetings between top Chinese leaders and US companies were meant to send a message that Beijing would address the concerns of foreign businesses, including intellectual property rights infringement.

“China is using its large consumer market and development strength to offset the impact of the trade war,” he said. “China is trying to tell foreign companies that its investment environment is still positive.”

Additional reporting by Orange Wang