Tesla’s reputation degrades in China following auto show protest

A protest by a Tesla user that went viral at a Shanghai auto show prompted an apologetic statement from the brand about rethinking its communications.

A woman stands atop a Tesla vehicle to protest the brand's alleged faulty brakes (Getty Images)
A woman stands atop a Tesla vehicle to protest the brand's alleged faulty brakes (Getty Images)

A Tesla owner protested against the auto brand’s alleged defective brakes at the Shanghai International Automobile Industry Exhibition on Monday, April 19. In a video that has since gone viral on Chinese social media, the disgruntled customer was seen standing atop a Tesla vehicle in a T-shirt that read 'the brakes don’t work’ and ‘invisible killer’. In the video, security guards are seen attempting to shield the person with umbrellas. The protester in question will be detained for five days for “disrupting public order”. 

Late on Tuesday, April 20, the electric vehicle-maker issued a statement in Chinese in response to the incident. The brand apologised for failing to resolve the dispute with the customer in time and that it was committed to communicating with car owners and seeking solutions to issues that may crop up. The brand admitted that it needed to step up the way it was communicating with customers.

It added that it has set up a special handling team to meet the demands of car owners while striving to comply with local laws and regulations. It added that the brand entered China to build production plants in order to better serve Chinese customers and promote the development of the industry.

“We respect Chinese customers, partners, Chinese netizens, and Chinese media friends. We have heard many pertinent opinions and criticisms, and we sincerely accept these opinions and criticisms,” a translated version of the statement reads.

“Based on this experience, we will try our best to learn from this lesson, carefully [study] it, and carry out strict self-examination and self-correction while cooperating with the investigation of relevant government departments.”

Tesla has recently been on the defense in China as it has tried to pacify reports of battery fires, unexpected acceleration, and failures in software updates. On top of that, Beijing appeared to have prohibited the use of Tesla vehicles by military and state personnel due to concerns of the vehicles’ cameras being able to record surroundings and gather sensitive data.

According to a BBC report in February, Chinese consumer watchdogs have asked Tesla to improve internal management, comply with Chinese law and regulations, and to protect consumers' rights. To that, Tesla Shanghai said in a statement that it had "sincerely accepted the guidance of government departments" and that it had "deeply reflected on shortcomings". 

China is the world’s largest automotive market, and incidentally, Tesla sold 35,478 locally built Model 3 and Model Y cars in March, its best result in China ever. This is nearly double from the 18,318 vehicles sold in February. Tesla cars currently accounts for about 16 per cent of the electric vehicles sold in China so far this year. In 2020, about a fifth of Tesla's global revenue (about US$31.5 billion) came from China.

Last month, Tesla’s prolific founder Elon Musk said that China will become the world's largest economy and will be the company’s main global market in terms of production and sales. "In the long term, China will be our largest market, both where we will manufacture the most vehicles and where we will have the most customers," he said in an interview with Xinhua.

PRWeek Asia has reached out to Tesla China for additional comment.

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