Woman detained for protesting Tesla at Shanghai auto show

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The simmering issue of how Tesla deals with customer complaints in China came to a boil this week as police detained a woman after she protested at Tesla’s booth at the Auto Shanghai 2021 trade show. The woman was dragged off the show floor after jumping on top of a Tesla Model 3, where she shouted about a brake issue the company has been criticized for with its China-made cars. Tesla has since said it will conduct a self-inspection of its service and operations in China.

The woman, who police referred to only by her surname “Zhang,” according to Reuters, was detained for “disrupting public order.” She has protested before about the brake issue, after she was involved in a crash. She is reportedly being held for five days.

Video of Zhang on top of the Tesla went viral on Monday across China’s biggest social networks, and on Twitter, where state-owned tabloid Global Times shared a clip.

Tesla’s China division initially said on Chinese platform Weibo that Zhang had crashed her car because she was speeding, but admitted it still hasn’t “fulfilled [its] wish” to “win assurance and understanding from consumers.”

That response stoked an already fervent reaction to the protest. Another state-owned news outlet, CCTV, called for an investigation into the alleged brake problems, while a third, Xinhua, said Tesla showed “no sincerity in solving the problem.” Government agencies have spoken up, too. The Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Communist Party of China Central Committee said on WeChat that Tesla should respect Chinese consumers and comply with local laws and regulations, according to Bloomberg, while the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection said “enterprises should not be arrogant and unreasonable,” according to Reuters.

The reaction was so intense that Tesla released a second statement Tuesday apologizing for not handling Zhang’s complaints sooner. It also capitulated slightly on the brake issue, saying in the same statement that it will now review its service and operations as a result of the protest and the backlash.

Tesla has been making cars in China since it opened a new factory outside Shanghai in early 2020 — the first in the country to be wholly-owned by a foreign automaker. While that factory already accounts for a huge part of Tesla’s global sales, the company has been plagued with complaints about the quality of the cars it makes there. Tesla was rebuked by multiple government agencies earlier this year in China over how it’s handled customer complaints about the quality of its cars. In response, the company said it “sincerely accepted the guidance of government departments” and that it had “deeply reflected on [its] shortcomings.”

Tesla’s response to pressure from the Chinese government is a stark response to how it acts in the US, where CEO Elon Musk often teases regulators.

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