Amid ongoing tensions between Tesla and China, China-based bloggers on platforms like Weibo say that Tesla threatened to file defamation lawsuits due to negative comments that they had made online. Most of the comments involve questions about Tesla vehicles’ safety after several crashes in which the previously reported sudden unintended acceleration may have been a factor.
The U.S. regulatory agency National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) had previously ruled that reported cases of sudden unintended acceleration may have been the result of user error. A driver might have hit the gas pedal instead of the brake, for instance. Tesla shareholder Brian Sparks, who had filed the initial report with the NHTSA, said that the number of sudden acceleration cases were “absurdly high” for being a simple matter of user error, but that he trusted the regulators’ judgment.
Tesla has issued an increasing number of recalls recently, possibly due to the bad publicity and pressure from regulators. In late May, it issued a recall of some Model 3 and Model Y vehicles to fix a brake issue that may be unrelated to the unintended acceleration cases. Just days later, Tesla recalled the same models to fix issues with the seat belts.
Last year, it recalled some vehicles sold in China to fix an issue with the suspension system. Despite the recalls, Chinese media has criticized Tesla’s safety record. As part of a protest, one woman climbed on top a red Model 3 that was on display at the Shanghai Auto Show in protest of the alleged braking issue. She has since apologized for the incident, saying that it was “extreme.”
Several Chinese members of Weibo and the video platform TikTok have also issued apologies for their negative comments after Tesla reportedly sent them chat messages threatening lawsuits on those platforms. A lawyer named Xia Hailong said that Tesla could likely win a defamation suit, citing precedents like Tencent’s 2018 defamation case against Toutiao, in which Tencent accused its rival of sharing unfounded negative news and damaging its reputation. Tencent apparently has a long-running feud with Toutiao that sometimes involves back-and-forth court cases.
Tesla has previously filed a libel lawsuit against the Chinese news outlet PingWest over its report that Gigafactory Shanghai allegedly makes use of “sweatshop” practices. Tesla is notorious for being anti-union to the point where Musk and Tesla both got dinged by a U.S. federal labor board for publicly issuing threats against pro-union organizers, which Tesla has since appealed. However, Tesla says that PingWest’s claims were exaggerated at best and certainly overly sensationalized.
Despite the tensions, and now Tesla’s fight with Chinese bloggers, deliveries of Tesla vehicles appeared to rebound a bit in May after a dismal April for sales in the important Chinese market. Tesla has had to put a pause on apparent plans to expand Gigafactory Shanghai amid the weaker demand and tensions between the U.S. and China that Tesla might simply be caught in the middle of, partly due to allegations that its vehicles’ onboard cameras could be used for espionage.