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Elon Musk greeted with flattery and feasts during China trip

By Martin Quin Pollard

BEIJING (Reuters) -He's "a pioneer", "Brother Ma" and some want him to be U.S. president. Billionaire Elon Musk has been showered with praise by the Chinese public during his trip to the country while also securing audiences with three government ministers.

Since landing in Beijing on Tuesday, the Tesla Inc chief executive has met with China's foreign, commerce and industry ministers and has dined with Zeng Yuqun, chairman of top battery supplier CATL.

While little is known of those conversations - the industry ministry only said Musk and its head exchanged views about the development of electric vehicles and connected cars while the commerce ministry announced he discussed Tesla's development in China with its head - that hasn't stopped an outpouring of enthusiasm for Musk on Chinese social media.


"He's a global idol," commented one user. "Elon Musk is just great, if only China could have someone like Elon Musk," said another.

His private jet had left Beijing for the financial hub of Shanghai, where the U.S. automaker has a factory, on Wednesday evening, according to flight data provider Variflight.

Musk's unannounced trip is the latest by a major U.S. CEO to China since the country reversed its zero-COVID policy and reopened its borders. Apple's Tim Cook visited in March, while JPMorgan's Jamie Dimon and Starbucks' Laxman Narasimhan are also in China this week.

But compared to lower-key welcomes for his counterparts, Musk's visit is a hot trending topic and his popularity comes despite rising U.S.-China tensions, with keen interest shown in his comments on artificial intelligence and electric vehicles.

Even the menu for the 16-course meal at the upmarket Man Fu Yan restaurant he shared with CATL's Zeng on Tuesday evening was effusive, photos posted on social media showed.

Illustrated with two rearing horses - a play on the character for horse used in Musk's Chinese name - the menu described Tesla as a dark horse "standing out from traditional automotive companies".

In contrast to the social media storm in China and his propensity at home to make waves on Twitter (which he now owns), Musk has yet to make any public statements during his trip. Twitter is blocked in China.

Tesla and CATL did not respond to requests for comment. The commerce ministry also did not respond to a request for comment. The foreign ministry quoted the billionaire as describing the U.S. and China economies as "conjoined twins" and saying that he was opposed to their decoupling.

Musk's first visit to China in three years comes as Tesla faces intensifying competition from Chinese-made electric vehicles and some uncertainty about expansion plans for the Shanghai plant.

Musk is expected to meet other senior Chinese officials and visit the Shanghai plant later in the week, sources have said, though it was not clear who exactly he would meet or what issues they would discuss. Reuters reported in March that Musk had sought a meeting with Chinese Premier Li Qiang.

The Shanghai factory produced over 700,000 Model Y and Model 3 vehicles last year, more than half of the company's global output.

It was not clear if Tesla is facing any regulatory hurdles to expanding the plant.

Investors are also keen to know whether China regulators will clear the release of Tesla's advanced driver assistance features. The features are available in the United States as part of the "Full Self Driving" software it sells for $15,000 per vehicle.

(Reporting by Martin Pollard, Josh Arslan, Wang Tingshu and Joe Cash in Beijing and Zhang Yan in Shanghai and the Shanghai Newsroom; Writing by Brenda Goh; Editing by Edwina Gibbs and Sriraj Kalluvila)