China would like more American executives like Elon Musk, please.
During a whirlwind 44 hours in Beijing and Shanghai, the Tesla and Twitter CEO was celebrated by Chinese Communist Party commentators as an ally opposing a perceived American campaign to separate the world's two largest economies.
"Decoupling from China means decoupling from opportunity, decoupling from the future," wrote Xiake Dao, a blog affiliated with the People's Daily, the party's official newspaper. "Even if the White House agrees with arguments for decoupling, the Musks [of the world] will not agree."
Musk, making his first trip to China in three years, apparently felt the same (even though Twitter is blocked in China and Musk did not tweet while in the country). He told the foreign minister that China and the United States were "conjoined twins" with inseparable interests, according to Chinese readouts.
The trip has been a propaganda win for Beijing's intensifying campaign to signal openness to foreign investment after months of unpredictable, politically motivated crackdowns stoked fears that business environment was worsening.
So far, China's promises have struggled to overcome international corporations' alarm over an updated counterespionage law and multiple raids on global consulting firms in recent weeks, at least one of which saw staff detained. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has warned that "China's stated policy of openness and desire to attract new foreign investment and exports" from the United States is not without risk.
But Beijing is rolling out the red carpet for visiting American executives -- and not just Musk.
J PMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon and Starbucks CEO Laxman Narasimhan were also in the Chinese capital last week, shoring up their own business interests at the same time as Beijing tries to woo the American business lobby, which has traditionally opposed Washington's more hawkish China policies.
Musk's itinerary included all the usual flourishes of China's hospitality -- lavish dinners and meetings with senior officials -- as well as a touch more geopolitics than is usual for an executive.
On arriving in Beijing, he went directly to a meeting with Qin Gang, China's foreign minister and former ambassador to the United States.
In a room usually reserved for meeting diplomatic counterparts, Qin pledged open markets for businesses from all countries and then deployed a string of car metaphors to urge a positive turn in China-U.S. ties.
Progress requires "holding onto the steering wheel," avoiding "dangerous driving" by "stepping on the brakes' when necessary and also "putting the pedal to the metal" when appropriate to "promote mutually beneficial cooperation," he said.
Musk also met with the ministers of commerce and information technology in Beijing, which helped pump up the Tesla's stock price as analysts predicted that the trip would help the electric carmaker weather intense competition from local rivals.
The red carpet treatment continued with a welcome banquet attended by the chairman of China's leading battery manufacturer, CATL, and a dinner theme of "Horse-Extraordinary." It was a pun on the first character of Musk's Chinese surname -- ma, meaning horse.
The menu was fit for a king -- which might have been fitting since Musk on Thursday reclaimed his position as richest person in the world, according to Bloomberg Billionaires Index.
Guests were served 16 dishes with intriguingly translated English names like "Dendeobium and Jellyfish Head in Seafood Sauce," "Stim-fried Lily and Luffa," and "Laotan Pickled Cabbage Geoduck," according to pictures of the menu that circulated widely on Weibo, the country's answer to Twitter.
He was also greeted with cheers and applause -- and even a few heart-shaped hand gestures -- when he paid a late-night visit to Tesla's Gigafactory in Shanghai.
Even with the showy reception, no new deals were announced during the trip and a rumored meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang, who as former Shanghai Communist Party boss was instrumental in allowing Tesla to set up a factory in China, never materialized.
Tesla has been credited with igniting Chinese consumer interest in electric cars with the opening of its Shanghai factory in 2019, deepening competition among dozens of Chinese rivals and sparking a wave of sales that last year surpassed government targets for electric vehicle penetration.
But Tesla has had to repeatedly cut prices in China as Warren Buffett-backed rival BYD claimed pole position as both the best-selling electric vehicle brand in the world and the top overall auto brand in China by sales.
In Beijing last week, Musk said he was willing to expand his business in China. In April, Tesla announced plans for a new factory that will produce its Megapack energy storage system in Shanghai.
But a planned expansion which would have boosted the output of the existing vehicle factory remains uncertain amid rising inventories, price cuts and reported concerns in Beijing over Tesla's connections to satellite internet service Starlink, another Musk venture.
Musk is far from the only American executive to take advantage of China's only recently opened borders to talk up local business and play down the risks of geopolitics.
Chinese state media has hailed a "craze of coming to China" that began in March with the China Development Forum, which was attended by the likes of Apple CEO Tim Cook, Nestle CEO Mark Schneider and Qualcomm CEO Cristiano Amon.
"Coming and staying in the Chinese market is not a question of wanting to or not," wrote the state-run Beijing Business Daily, "it's a question of necessity."
Some American companies appear to agree.
Starbucks's Narasimhan used his first overseas trip since taking up the role to tell reporters in Shanghai last week that he hoped China would one day be the company's largest market, as the coffee seller aims for 9,000 stores in the country by 2025.
Yet, amid the worst tensions between China and the United States in decades, being a foreign executive visiting China can mean navigating increasingly hazardous minefield to avoid offending either Beijing or Washington.
JPMorgan's Dimon, who faced a Chinese backlash in 2021 after joking that his bank might outlast the Chinese Communist Party, used a visit last week to call for "real engagement" between the China and the United States on trade policy.
"Let's not try to decouple. Let's not try to hurt China," he told JPMorgan's Global China Summit in Shanghai, where he also met the city's Communist Party boss.
At the same time, he warned of the dangers of "uncertainty" caused by Chinese government policies and praised officials talk in Washington and Europe of "de-risking," rather than decoupling, the trade relationship with China.
For Chinese state media, however, this new term remains politically incorrect. "At first glance, de-risking seems to be a common and nonpolitical term in the business world, but in essence it is nothing more than a softer way to call for decoupling from China," another People's Daily commentary said on Thursday.
Musk's decision not to tweet while in China was also interpreted by critics as a cautionary step to avoid angering his hosts.
"Despite his self-proclaimed detest for censorship and willingness to challenge it, he is behaving properly for his CCP host," tweeted Yaqiu Wang, China researcher at Human Rights Watch, using an acronym for the Chinese Communist Party.
Information for this article was contributed by Lyric Lin, Vic Chiang and Pei-Lin Wu of The Washington Post.