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Elon Musk’s China ties add potential risks to Twitter purchase

BEIJING: Elon Musk’s ties to China through his role as electric car brand Tesla’s biggest shareholder could add complexity to his bid to buy Twitter.

Other companies that want access to China give in to pressure to follow Beijing’s positions on Taiwan and other issues. But Twitter is shut out by internet barriers that block most Chinese users from seeing global social media, which gives Beijing no leverage over the company, though the ruling Communist Party uses it to spread propaganda abroad.

Tesla Inc.’s ambitions in China might give Beijing the leverage to pressure Twitter to silence human rights activists and other critics or ease its rules on propaganda if Musk’s $44 billion purchase goes ahead, some experts suggest. Chinese customers bought half the Teslas sold last year. Its busiest factory and “main export hub” is in Shanghai.

“The Chinese exert tremendous leverage over businesses,” said Anne Stevenson-Yang of J Capital Research. “If you care about the Shanghai operation (of Tesla), then you’re going to put everything else in service to that.”

Musk says he sees “no indications” Beijing might use Tesla as leverage, but other companies don’t wait for government orders. Automakers, clothing brands and others take pre-emptive action to protect their access to China by changing marketing or products sold worldwide to reflect official positions such as the ruling party’s claim that self-ruled Taiwan is part of its territory.

Musk said Friday his offer was suspended while he tried to confirm whether the number of Twitter accounts without real users behind them was below 5% of the total, as the company says.

On Monday, he said at a business conference in Miami that a deal at a lower price wasn’t “out of the question,” Bloomberg News reported. That supported suggestions by industry analysts that Musk wants out of the deal or a lower price due to a fall in the value of Tesla stock, some of which he has pledged to finance the purchase.

Trying to use an investor’s stake in one company to pressure a different company outside China would be a new tactic. But foreign investors know the ruling party is increasingly assertive about defending its “core interests” worldwide and attacks global brands even when that imposes costs on China and its public.

Officials have warned companies must “respect the feelings of the Chinese people” and avoid “eating Chinese rice while smashing Chinese bowls.”

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