Tesla Faces New China Challenge After Woman's Auto-Show Protest Goes Viral
By Trefor Moss
SHANGHAI -- A single protester with a disputed claim about the
safety of Tesla Inc. electric vehicles has hit a nerve in China,
sending complaints about the company ricocheting across the Chinese
internet and refocusing attention on alleged quality issues in a
critical market for Tesla.
The woman climbed atop a Tesla Model 3 sedan at the Auto
Shanghai expo on Monday, shouting allegations about faulty brakes
on Tesla vehicles while wearing a T-shirt that read "The Brakes
Don't Work" and "Invisible Killer."
Videos uploaded by visitors then showed her being dragged away
by security guards, who had previously attempted to use open
umbrellas to hide the woman from onlookers. When the Journal
visited the Tesla stand later on Monday morning, the company had
beefed up security.
The protest at the Tesla booth, a rare public display of
defiance in China, was picked up by state media outlets and quickly
went viral on the Chinese internet. Within a few hours, more than
150 million people had viewed a hashtag of the incident on China's
Twitter-like Weibo platform, remarking on how Tesla's booth had
become "a platform for rights defenders."
Many users sympathized with her plight, with one accusing Tesla
of "hoodwinking Chinese consumers" and others calling on the public
to turn to Chinese competitors. Another user with more than 5
million followers who claims to have purchased three Tesla vehicles
said in another widely liked post that he never had any problems
with the braking system but offered up his own litany of complaints
about other alleged glitches.
A company media representative at the booth said that the
protest was a matter for the police and that she couldn't comment
on the allegations of quality defects.
Tesla said in a statement on Weibo that the protester was a
Tesla customer from Henan province whose father was involved in a
February accident in which his Model 3 had crashed into another
The woman had demanded a full refund, claiming that a technical
problem with the car had caused the crash, according to Tesla.
However, the company said that the woman's father had crashed due
to excessive speed. The company said it had been in contact with
the woman and was willing to help her find a solution.
In an earlier statement concerning the accident, the company
identified the woman as a Ms. Zhang, who has staged other protests
against the company.
The woman's claims couldn't be independently verified, and she
couldn't be reached for comment.
In her own Weibo post following the incident, a woman claiming
to be Ms. Zhang said that she would seek justice through the legal
system, and that the incident exposed the true face behind Tesla's
vaunted brand. By Monday evening, the post had been shared more
than 2,000 times and had garnered more than 17,000 "likes."
Grace Tao, a Tesla vice president and one of the company's top
executives in China, has downplayed Tesla's quality issues.
Technical problems were rare and were treated seriously whenever
they came to light, Ms. Tao said in an interview last month with
Chinese online automotive news channel Dongchedi. "I can say
confidently that most [of these customer complaints] are based on a
misunderstanding," she said.
Tesla has maintained a relatively low-key presence at this
year's auto show -- which alternates annually between the cities of
Beijing and Shanghai -- and held no launch events, in contrast to
most of the other auto makers exhibiting here.
Even so, the protest served as the latest publicity setback for
Tesla in China, ensuring that the American EV maker became the
center of attention for the wrong reasons.
Tesla sales have grown rapidly in China since the company began
building cars in Shanghai more than a year ago. March was Tesla's
best month in China to date, with 35,478 made-in-China Model 3 and
Model Y cars sold, according to the China Passenger Car
As it has grown, though, the company has faced a growing chorus
of complaints from disappointed customers, including several
allegations of brake failures, prompting regulators in Beijing to
summon Tesla for a public dressing-down over quality problems in
February. The company responded by vowing to make improvements.
Chief executive Elon Musk spoke last month by video link at the
China Development Forum, a high-profile government conference, to
deny that Tesla vehicles could be used to spy on Chinese
The government had earlier banned military personnel and
employees at state-owned companies from driving Tesla cars in case
they were being used to send sensitive data to the U.S.
--Raffaele Huang and Bingyan Wang contributed to this
(END) Dow Jones Newswires
April 19, 2021 08:48 ET (12:48 GMT)
Copyright (c) 2021 Dow Jones & Company, Inc.