Chinese state-linked paper lashes out at Elon Musk over lab leak theory

A Chinese state-run media outlet has issued a word of warning to Elon Musk: Be careful about how you talk about China. 

The warning came in the form of an editorial published Monday by Global Times, a state-backed nationalist tabloid. On Sunday, Musk appeared to agree with a tweet that espoused the lab leak theory for the Covid pandemic, which theorizes that the virus escaped from a Chinese laboratory in the city of Wuhan —  a theory that has been dismissed by many scientists and experts.

The Global Times published the editorial to the Chinese social media site WeChat, warning Musk that endorsing the theory is akin to “breaking the pot of China.” As CNBC’s Eunice Yoon has reported, the saying is akin to the English-language idiom “biting the hand that feeds you.”

The warning is a stark reminder that Musk’s ownership of Tesla, a business heavily intertwined with China, can clash with his claims of being a champion of free speech. While Tesla is an American company, its largest factory is in Shanghai, and China is its second-biggest sales market after the U.S.

China, the world’s second-largest economy after the U.S., has several state-owned national newspapers that espouse the views of its ruling party. The Global Times is generally the most “inflammatory” and “represents the most nationalist segments of the CCP,” said Dakota Cary, a China specialist at the Krebs Stamos Group, a tech advisory firm, referring to the ruling Chinese Communist Party.

China is routinely ranked as one of the world’s most heavily censored societies. A request for comment sent to the Chinese Embassy in Washington was not immediately returned.

Musk, who went through with his purchase Twitter last year after attempting to back out of the sale, has claimed he bought the social media giant out of a desire to foster discourse around the world, and has described himself as a “free speech absolutist.”

He has, however, also sporadically taken down content he dislikes with little warning, like when he banned users from sharing public data on his private plane and suspended journalists who linked to that information.

The lab leak theory gained new life Sunday when The Wall Street Journal first reported that the Energy Department had concluded with “low confidence” that such a leak was the most likely origin of the Covid pandemic. One source told NBC News “that this is not being viewed as hugely significant among the intelligence community due to interagency disagreements about Covid’s origins.” 

The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs stressed that the tracing of the origin of Covid is a scientific matter and should not be politicized.

“Relevant sides should stop hyping up the lab leak theory and stop smearing China and politicizing the origin tracing issue,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Mao Ning said.

The U.S. government does not have a consensus belief on how the virus originated, but agencies have agreed it was not an intentional bioweapon, NBC News has reported. 

As the economic rivalry between China and the U.S. escalates, some large corporations that court customers in both countries have found themselves caught in the middle between the U.S. and Chinese governments. The chair of the newly formed U.S. House committee on competition with China, Rep. Mike Gallagher, R-Wis., said Sunday that he may call companies like Disney and the NBA to testify to ensure that “the power of the Chinese economy is not seducing American companies into betraying American values.”

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