A Cold Chinese Takedown Of Elon Musk

The announcement of major layoffs for Tesla China, the entrepreneur's electric car company, prompts a deeper analysis of Musk as manager.

Elon Musk (right) hands the key of a Tesla car to a customer in Shanghai on April 23, 2014
Elon Musk (right) hands the key of a Tesla car to a customer in Shanghai on April 23, 2014
Liu Junjing


BEIJING — Last weekend, Space X launched two new communications satellites under the command of Elon Musk. Meanwhile on the other side of the Pacific, Tesla China, another company founded by the famous California-based entrepreneur, was quietly going through an unprecedented round of layoffs. Unfortunately Musk doesn't seem to understand what went wrong.

The downsizing decision came from Musk himself, straightforward and decisive without any room for questioning. "The Chinese market's sales performance is not ideal. It hasn't moved towards a clear road of long-term positive cash flow," he declared as he prepared to eliminate at least 30% of Tesla China's jobs.

"Absolutely confident of himself and having absolute discretion have always been Elon Musk's style", a source close to Musk stated to me just before the firings. Obviously the arrogant "Iron man" was unmoved by any local consequences, and proceeded with the company's retrenchment.

Elon Musk's faith in himself, rather than in any God, finds its roots in his own ability to pull success out of a seemingly impossible set of events. Leading up to 2008, the Tesla Roadster sports car was falling short of being put into operation on schedule due to a cost overrun while four rocket-launching failures almost broke his substantial personal fortune as one of the co-founders of PayPal.

Just as he was getting over these adversities the financial crisis hit again. The company was cash-strapped. But once more Musk pulled himself out of the predicament with Tesla's Model S.

Such absolute confidence does not allow for any voice of doubt. Yet such a self-willed personality also led him to commit the most serious mistake, to act as the executive operator of a car company that has now set foot into an international market.

"Elon is definitely a gifted man. But his very un-orthodox way of thinking makes him unsuitable as manager of a company. First because he himself has never had any real managerial experience, let alone in an overseas market to which he is a total stranger," said another source in China who has worked with him.

It is said that Toyota and DaimlerChrysler sold their shares in Tesla Motors precisely because they do not like the company's management approach. In the meantime, in the face of a Chinese market more complex than he had imagined, Musk embodies a manager with neither wisdom nor expertise.

Elon Musk getting off a Tesla car in Shanghai on April 23, 2014 — Photo: Pei Xin/Xinhua/ZUMA

Take the cooperation plans of Tesla China with Tmall, a Chinese platform for local Chinese and international businesses to sell brand name goods to consumers, and Dalian Wanda Group, a Chinese conglomerate and operator in various industries, as examples. Last year, Tesla China's top executives first announced an upcoming limited edition of its Model S with Tmall on China's "Singles' Day" — Nov. 11, which has become a shopping spree festival. But the cooperation was halted by Musk at the last minute.

Meanwhile, when Tesla China started negotiating with Wanda Cinemas, the largest movie theater operator in China and Asia, about building charging stations the plan was also vetoed by Musk because he suspected that Wanda was just trying to bask in the sunlight of Tesla.

No longer a start-up

"As a matter of fact, Tmall and Wanda are both much better known than Tesla in China. Musk doesn’t understand the Chinese market nor does he know how to manage," a Tesla China insider lamented to me.

Elon Musk just can't understand why last April when he made his first trip to China he was feted as a business hero, while less than one year later he is treated with such coldness. He seems to be behaving like a child. In the face of his beloved and suddenly broken toy he doesn't know how to repair it, so his next act is probably just to throw it irritably on the floor.

This is of course best reflected in his crude decision to make huge layoffs in order to maintain the firm's cash flow.

"As a power player and technology-based CEO, Musk’s success relies to a large extent on the company’s technological breakthrough, not on management and operation," argues Zhao Ning, an automotive industry analyst. "But it’s a very dangerous situation for Tesla which already has been through the start-up phase."

Far away back in the United States, Musk seems to have no idea what happened to the carmaker’s Chinese market. He simply believes that making cars is far less difficult than making rockets, and therefore he will eventually overcome the challenges in China as well. What he forgets is that compared to the relatively closed rocket-making market, car manufacturing is an industry with a high market density and fierce competition.

Even more important, the leaders of this sector possess experience and vision in operating internationally. An article about Musk aroused quite a bit of buzz in my circle of friends lately. The article stated that the electric carmaker is convinced that one should look at problems using the First Principle of physics “so that one can differentiate what one should do and what is just following other’s footsteps.”

The question is that, when you are not in your own area of expertise, how do you determine whether your foot is stepping out in the right direction?

In my opinion, though excellent in physics, it’s time Musk polishes up his economics and management skills.

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Where Lockdowns For LGBTQ Meant Moving Back In With Homophobic Relatives

The confinement experience could turn brutal for those forced to live with relatives who would not tolerate a member of the family living their sexual orientation openly as a young adult. Here are stories from urban and rural India.

At a Rainbow pride walk in Kolkata, India

Sreemanti Sengupta

Abhijith had been working as a radio jockey in the southern Indian city of Thiruvananthapuram when the COVID-19 pandemic hit in March, 2020. When the government imposed a nationwide lockdown, Abhijith returned to the rural Pathanamthitta district , where his parents live with an extended family, including uncles, cousins and grandparents.

Eighteen months later, he recalled that the experience was "unbearable" because he had to live with homophobic relatives. "Apart from the frequent reference to my sexual 'abnormality', they took me to a guruji to 'cure' me," Abhijith recalled. "He gave me something to eat, which made me throw up. The guru assured me that I was throwing up whatever 'demon' was possessing me and 'making' me gay."

Early in 2021, Abhijith travelled back to Thiruvananthapuram, where he found support from the members of the queer collective.

Inspired by their work, he also decided to work towards uplifting the queer community. "I wish no one else goes through the mental trauma I have endured," said Abhijit.

Abhijith's story of mental distress arising from family abuse turns out to be all too common among members of India's LGBTQ+ community, many of whom were trapped in their homes and removed from peer support groups during the pandemic.

Oppressive home situations

As India continues to reel from a pandemic that has claimed more lives (235,524) in three months of the second wave (April-June 2021) than in the one year before that (162,960 deaths in March 2020-March 2021), the LGBTQ community has faced myriad problems. Sexual minorities have historically suffered from mainstream prejudice and the pandemic has aggravated socio-economic inequalities, instigated family and institutionalized abuse, apart from limiting access to essential care. This has resulted in acute mental distress which has overwhelmed queer support infrastructure across the country.

Speaking to queer collective representatives across India, I learned that the heightened levels of distress in the community was due to longstanding factors that were triggered under lockdown conditions. Family members who are intolerant of marginalized sexual identities, often tagging their orientation as a "disorder" or "just a phase", have always featured among the main perpetrators of subtle and overt forms of violence towards queer, trans and homosexual people.

Calls from lesbians and trans men to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns.

Sappho For Equality, a Kolkata-based feminist organization that works for the rights of sexually marginalized women and trans men, recorded a similar trend. Early in the first wave, the organization realized that the existing helpline number was getting overwhelmed with distress calls. It added a second helpline number. The comparative figures indicate a 13-fold jump in numbers: from 290 calls in April 2019-March 20 to 3,940 calls in April 2020-May 2021.

"Most of the calls we have been getting from lesbians and trans men are urgent appeals to prevent forced marriages during lockdowns," said Shreosi, a Sappho member and peer support provider. "If they happen to resist, they are either evicted or forced to flee home. But where to house them? There aren't so many shelters, and ours is at full capacity."

Shreosi says that the nature of distress calls has also changed. "Earlier people would call in for long-term help, such as professional mental health support. But during the pandemic, it has changed to immediate requests to rescue from oppressive home situations. Often, they will speak in whispers so that the parents can't hear."

Lack of spaces

Like many of his fellow queer community members, life for Sumit P., a 30-year-old gay man from Mumbai, has taken a turn for the worse. The lockdown has led to the loss of safe spaces and prolonged residence at home.

"It has been a really difficult time since the beginning of the lockdown. I am suffering from a lot of mental stress since I cannot freely express myself at home. Even while making a call, I have to check my surroundings to see if anybody is there. If I try to go out, my family demands an explanation. I feel suffocated," he said.

The pandemic has forced some queer people to come out

Sumit is also dealing with a risk that has hit the community harder than others – unemployment and income shortage. He's opened a cafe with two other queer friends, which is now running into losses. For others, pandemic-induced job losses have forced queer persons from all over the country to return to their home states and move in with their families who've turned abusive during this long period of confinement.

Lockdowns force coming out

According to Kolkata-based physician, filmmaker and gay rights activist Tirthankar Guha Thakurata, the pandemic has forced some queer people to come out, succumbing to rising discomfort and pressure exerted by homophobic families.

"In most cases, family relations sour when a person reveals their identity. But many do not flee home. They find a breathing space or 'space out' in their workspaces. In the absence of these spaces, mental problems rose significantly," he said.

Not being able to express themselves freely in front of parents who are hostile, intolerant and often address transgender persons by their deadname or misgender them has created situations of severe distress, suicidal thoughts and self-harm.

Psychiatrist and queer feminist activist Ranjita Biswas (she/they) cites an incident. A gender-nonconforming person died under suspicious circumstances just days after leaving their peer group and going home to their birth parents. The final rites were performed with them dressed in bangles and a saree.

"When a member of our community asked their mother why she chose a saree for someone who had worn androgynous clothes all their life, she plainly said it was natural because after all, the deceased 'was her daughter,'" Biswas recalls.

The Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling

David Talukdar/ZUMA

"Correctional" therapy

In India, queer people's access to professional mental healthcare has been "very limited," according to community members such as Ankan Biswas, India's first transgender lawyer who has been working with the Human Rights Law Network in West Bengal.

"A large majority of the psychiatrists still consider homosexuality as a disorder and practice 'correctional therapy'. It's only around the big cities that some queer-friendly psychiatrists can be found," Biswas said. "The pandemic has further widened the inequalities in access to mental health support for India's LGBTQ community."

Biswas is spending anxious days fielding an overwhelming amount of calls and rescue requests from queer members trapped in their homes, undergoing mental, verbal and even physical torture. "We don't have the space, I just tell them to wait and bear it a little longer," he said.

Medical care is dismal

Anuradha Krishnan's story, though not involving birth family, outlines how the lack of physical support spaces have affected India's queer population. Abandoned by her birth family when she came out to them as a trans woman in 2017, Anuradha Krishnan (she/they), founder of Queerythm in Kerala who is studying dentistry, had to move into an accommodation with four other persons.

Isolation triggered my depression

"I am used to talking and hanging around with friends. Isolation triggered my depression and I had to seek psychiatric help." Living in cramped quarters did not help with quarantine requirements and all of them tested positive during the first wave.

What is deeply worrying is that the Indian queer mental health support infrastructure, already compromised with historical prejudice, is now struggling, placing more and more pressure on queer collectives and peer support groups whose resources are wearing thin.

During the 10 months of the first wave of the pandemic in India in 2020, Y'all, a queer collective based in Manipur, received about 1,000 distress calls on their helpline number from LGBTQ+ individuals. In May 2021 alone, they received 450 such calls (including texts and WhatsApp messages) indicating a telling escalation in the number of queer people seeking help during the second wave.

As India's queer-friendly mental health support infrastructure continues to be tested, Y'all founder, Sadam Hanjabam, a gay man, says, "Honestly, we are struggling to handle such a large number of calls, it is so overwhelming. We are also dealing with our own anxieties. We are burning out."

Sreemanti Sengupta is a freelance writer, poet, and media studies lecturer based in Kolkata.

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