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Elon Musk: China wanted me to promise no Starlink in China, disapproved of it in Ukraine

In a April 30, 2015 file photo, Tesla Motors CEO and SpaceX CEO and CTO Elon Musk introduces a new line of residential and commercial batteries. (Jerome Adamstein/Los Angeles Times/TNS)
October 10, 2022

Billionaire Elon Musk recently admitted he caught the ire of the Chinese government for activating Starlink satellite internet services for Ukraine and has been pressured to avoid offering such services in China.

Musk covered a range of topics in an interview with the Financial Times on Friday, including his business relations in China. At one point in the interview, Musk said the Beijing government, which is under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “made clear its disapproval of his recent rollout of Starlink” in Ukraine.

Musk activated the satellite internet service for Ukraine for free in the days after Russian forces launched their full-scale invasion of the country. The internet service has allowed the Ukrainian side to maintain critical communications abilities after Russian forces damaged much of their terrestrial internet services.

One potential reason for the CCP government’s disapproval of Musk’s Starlink activation in Ukraine is that the service has helped keep Ukraine in the fight against Russia. China and Russia have no formal military alliance, but have worked together closely as partners.

China has not overtly supported or condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but the Chinese government and its state-media organs have been careful to avoid casting any blame on Russia for its actions.

In addition to helping Ukraine against China’s informal ally, Starlink does pose a potential to circumvent China’s internet censorship.

Musk told the Financial Times that Beijing “sought assurances that he would not sell Starlink in China.”

Starlink could theoretically provide unrestricted internet services to countries with authoritarian governments, but it would be difficult and governments would still be able to track Starlink based internet activity

In theory, dissidents could smuggle Starlink service kits into an otherwise restricted country. Musk virtually hinted to such an idea last month in response to Iranian government crackdowns on protests. After the U.S. government announced it took action to counter Iranian censorship, Musk tweeted that he was also activating Starlink services for the people of Iran.

While Musk had activated Starlink in a manner suggesting it would help dissidents within Iran, the Wall Street Journal reported Iranians have struggled to actually turn Starlink services into a useful tool. In addition to the challenge of smuggling in enough Starlink kits to build up a useful network, there’s still a fair risk of being caught once those kits are activated.

Technology experts told the Wall Street Journal that even if dissidents could smuggle in and activate a sufficient number of terminals, the kits “produce an easily-tracked signal when transmitting data, making it possible for Iran’s security agencies to locate and shut them down and arrest the users.”

Musk faces a balancing with his business dealings in China. Musk has expanded his Tesla electric car line in the country and has set up a Tesla factory in Shanghai.

Musk has repeatedly praised China in the past.

Musk earned more praise from the Chinese government after his latest Financial Times interview. During the interview, Musk proposed resolving tensions between China and Taiwan by making Taiwan into a special administrative zone of China.

While Taiwan has governed itself independently of mainland China for decades, Musk’s proposal would essentially see Taiwan give up its independence to China.

Chinese Ambassador to the U.S. Qin Gang welcomed Musk’s proposal, tweeting, “I would like to thank @elonmusk for his call for peace across the Taiwan Strait and his idea about establishing a special administrative zone for Taiwan. Actually, Peaceful reunification and One Country, Two Systems are our basic principles for resolving the Taiwan question…”

By contrast, Taiwanese representative to the U.S. Bi-khim Hsiao tweeted, “Taiwan sells many products, but our freedom and democracy are not for sale. Any lasting proposal for our future must be determined peacefully, free from coercion, and respectful of the democratic wishes of the people of Taiwan.”