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March 22, 2021, 5:50 p.m. EDT

Elon Musk: Tesla would be ‘shut down’ if its cars spied on China

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By Nicole Lyn Pesce

Tesla is not watching you any more than TikTok is — or so Elon Musk tried to assure China and other countries over the weekend. 

The Wall Street Journal reported Friday that China’s government is barring military staff and the employees of key state-owned companies from driving Tesla /zigman2/quotes/203558040/lastsale TSLA +0.03% vehicles over fears that the cars’ exterior cameras — which record constantly — could collect sensitive footage that would then be sent to the U.S. government. Chinese authorities are also reportedly concerned that mobile phones synced to Tesla vehicles could compromise sensitive contact lists. 

Not so, Musk said while speaking via video link to the China Development Forum on Saturday.

“There’s a very strong incentive for us to be very confidential with any information,” he said. “If Tesla used cars to spy in China or anywhere, we will get shut down.”

Musk likened such espionage fears to President Donald Trump calling the Chinese-owned TikTok a threat to U.S. national security last year. 

“The United States wanted to shut down TikTok. Luckily, it did not happen,” Musk said. “Many people were concerned about TikTok. But I think this kind of concern is unnecessary, and we should learn lessons from it.”

The Chinese military Tesla ban was supposedly issued “a couple of weeks ago,” an anonymous source told The South China Morning Post , after Chinese leaders became “very concerned” about the vehicles. A screenshot of an order banning Teslas at a military accommodation complex went viral on Chinese social media just hours before Musk spoke on Saturday. 

China is a huge market for Tesla. The electric vehicle maker sold 147,455 vehicles there last year, Reuters reported , which accounted for 30% of Tesla’s global total. It’s facing more competition from Chinese auto makers Nio Inc. /zigman2/quotes/204905836/composite NIO -0.49% and Geely /zigman2/quotes/200716015/delayed HK:175 +6.10% , however, and the same anonymous source told The South China Morning Post that Musk may visit the country next month.

In One Chart: The explosion in electric-vehicle funding, valuation and trading

Musk has made some memorable visits to China before — such as his self-described “NSFW” dance at Tesla’s new Shanghai factory early last year, when he took off his jacket while doing a striptease-style shimmy on stage. 

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