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2022-05-13 11:47:24 Voices

Elon Musk’s appearance at this month’s Met Gala had the feel of a victory lap. Accompanied by his mother, model Maye Musk, the outspoken entrepreneur was all smiles a week after Twitter accepted his 44-billion-dollar offer to buy the company and take it private. For Musk’s legions of rabid fans, it was another anti-establishment triumph: Musk promised to cut back on the platform’s content moderation policies and return it to its “free speech” roots.

Even in China, where Twitter is inaccessible, the country’s Musk fans were paying close attention. The cult of personality that has sprung up around the Tesla and SpaceX founder is a global phenomenon, but the particulars can vary. By exploring those particulars, we can shed light on the forces underpinning Musk’s popularity.

Musk first drew widespread notice in China, not as a member of the “PayPal Mafia,” but through “Iron Man,” the Marvel Comics character and heroic alter ego of another willful billionaire: Tony Stark.

Chinese people aren’t the only ones to make the Iron Man comparison. Musk himself has played up the likeness and even cameoed in the second “Iron Man” film. But the image of Musk as a swaggering superhero has been particularly influential in this country. When Ashlee Vance’s authorized biography “Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX, and the Quest for a Fantastic Future” was translated into Chinese in 2016, for instance, the book’s publisher changed the title to “Silicon Valley Iron Man: Elon Musk’s Life of Adventure.”

The English original and Chinese translation of Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. For the latter, the title was changed to “Silicon Valley Iron Man.” From Douban

The English original and Chinese translation of Ashlee Vance’s biography of Elon Musk. For the latter, the title was changed to “Silicon Valley Iron Man.” From Douban

Both Musk and Tony Stark, Iron Man’s alter ego, are obsessive in their pursuit of technological advancement at any cost. Their charisma, propensity for out-of-the-box thinking, and quest for world-changing technologies also induce their fans to overlook their many faults. Elon Musk constantly flirts with and trolls influential people. He’s introduced cryptocurrency payments into Tesla’s business model, made flippant comments that resulted in wild market swings, and seemed to treat the purchase of Twitter as a joke. (On Friday, Musk announced he was putting the acquisition “on hold.”) Many Chinese social media users might dismiss these moves as crude power plays, but his fans see a larger plan to push the tech industry forward and leverage it to cure longstanding social ills.

Cut out all the nonsense, in other words, and what’s left is an idealist — and a rare person who backs up their boasts. Musk is seen as living antidote to the cynicism that pervades Chinese culture, as embodied by the “lying flat” movement.

He is also an avatar for the kind of forward-thinking industrial development China has spent the past century pursuing. On Jike, a social media platform popular among China’s urban middle class, there's an entire section — the “Elon Musk Info Station” — devoted to Musk’s exploits. When I posted to ask why Musk’s personality cult was so popular in China, one of the section’s 220,000 registered users replied that it was “because Elon Musk has earned the highest praise given to any engineer: everything he builds, works.”

Another center of China’s Musk fandom is Zhihu, a Q&A platform similar to Quora. The question “What's the deal with young people’s worship of Musk?” has been viewed more than four million times. One of the answers, from a user who claims to be in the electric vehicle industry, makes repeated reference to Vance’s biography to show how Musk, unlike more low-profile entrepreneurs, uses publicity and moonshots to his advantage. In this formulation, Tesla’s lead is inseparable from Musk’s resilience and leadership. Only Musk could achieve “what others once thought stupid, whether using electric cars to change the world or exploring Mars.”

Many of Musk’s Chinese fans belong to the internet subculture known as the “Industrial Party,” or gongye dang. The Industrial Party, a mostly male community, worships engineering, industry, and the scientific spirit, which they believe are the source of a nation-state’s strength. For many within the group, technological development is closely linked to outward expansion and hard power, whether that’s high-precision chips, sophisticated jet engines, or exploring outer space.

A video shows Elon Musk speaking during the China Development Forum 2021 at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, March 20, 2021. Wu Hong/EPA via IC

A video shows Elon Musk speaking during the China Development Forum 2021 at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, March 20, 2021. Wu Hong/EPA via IC

Musk’s libertarian streak may seem to put him at odds with the avowedly nationalist and statist Industrial Party, but his body of work, from electric cars to rockets, checks all the boxes. Yet, if Elon Musk’s techno-utopianism is so well suited to the current Chinese moment, it also raises an uncomfortable question: Why can’t China produce an Elon Musk of its own? He seems to mirror what China lacks: an industrialist with a free spirit of the kind that only flourishes in an open society.

From the perspective of the Industrial Party, Chinese companies’ ability to produce reliable, globally known hardware is crucial to the success of the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation.” Having people around the globe using products designed by Chinese companies, just as they drive Japanese cars and fly in American planes, is a point of national pride.

Despite a handful of success stories, like Huawei and drone manufacturer DJI, China’s current crop of tech firms is concentrated in entertainment, gaming, and e-commerce, and their success is often the product of investment or acquisition, rather than “hardcore” technological development. This failing, keenly felt in some corners of the Chinese internet, makes Musk’s inventor-entrepreneur brand all the more alluring.

China’s Musk fandom isn’t limited to Elon, however. While the male-dominated Industrial Party is focused on Musk’s technological achievements, there’s another, often overlooked side to the Musk cult in China, one centered not on the billionaire inventor, but on his mother, Maye, and comprised largely of women.

Maye’s popularity underlines the fears of Chinese women looking for a blueprint on how to live life to the fullest in a patriarchal society.

In April 2021, Maye Musk opened an account on the female-dominated Chinese lifestyle app Xiaohongshu and quickly accumulated a follower count in the hundreds of thousands. Maye’s Xiaohongshu consists of general updates about her life, alongside occasional videos tailored to the app’s users. The replies are overwhelmingly positive, with comments like “her character is so elegant and daring,” and “great mother, great woman, great soul!” Others talk about how Maye’s autobiography, “A Woman Makes a Plan: Advice for a Lifetime of Adventure, Beauty, and Success,” helped them find a shortcut to success.

Just as Elon’s fandom is closely linked to anxieties about China’s industrial development, Maye’s popularity underlines the fears of Chinese women looking for a blueprint on how to live life to the fullest in a patriarchal society. Her followers see Maye as an emblem of female success, someone who raised a successful son without losing one’s self-worth. They yearn for a coherent, self-actualized life like the one she presents on social media. In her, Maye’s fans see a chance to become more than just an interchangeable mother figure, but also to pursue one’s goals and age gracefully.

China’s unceasing pursuit of technological advancement — and its glorification of the people who make that advancement possible — have helped make Elon Musk a figure of both adoration and envy. As praise for Musk stacks up, China’s continued lack of its own Musk figure becomes all the more frustrating. But the Musk cult in China isn’t just about Elon or his business ventures. He and his family have become idealized avatars of “success.” For Elon, that comes in the form of industrial development and innovation; for Maye, it’s her ability to age gracefully into her dual role as a successful mother and independent career woman. The Musk family’s own self-proclaimed values — libertarianism and free speech among them — are less important than the futuristic utopia they seem to promise.

Afra Wang made an equal contribution to this article.

Editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Wang Zhenhao.

(Header image: Visual elements from Theo Wargo/WireImage, JURI, and Yevhenii Dubinko/VCG, edited by Ding Yining/Sixth Tone)