Chinese bloggers claim they have been threatened with legal action by Tesla for posting negative content about the US carmaker, as it battles a wave of bad publicity in the world’s largest car market.

The electric vehicle company this month established an account on popular Chinese microblog Weibo for its legal department in China. Some users claimed the account was used to send them private messages warning of defamation lawsuits.

Public sentiment in China, one of Tesla’s biggest markets, has appeared to turn against the California-based automaker in recent months after a spate of controversies involving customer complaints about alleged vehicle malfunctions.

At least two accounts on Douyin, China’s version of TikTok, have published letters in recent days apologising for videos that referenced non-existent Tesla quality issues after they claimed they received legal warnings from the car company.

By threatening to use legal means against critics, Tesla would follow an example set by Chinese technology companies including Tencent, which has sued bloggers under the country’s defamation law.

Such lawsuits often request a retraction, apology and compensation.

“Ruifeng Auto”, one of the accounts, said it would “reflect deeply” after posting a video at the end of May that suggested a new Tesla vehicle’s brakes had failed before it left the showroom. The account admitted the claims had “no factual basis”.

On Wednesday, a woman whose protest at the Shanghai Auto Show in April over an alleged brake failure helped escalate anger online towards Tesla acknowledged on Jinri Toutiao, a news aggregation app made by TikTok-owner ByteDance, that she had been “extreme” in pushing the company for compensation.

She had previously called on Tesla to hand over data from her vehicle to regulators and threatened to sue the company if it did not.

The same day, “five-thousand-year-old rabbit”, a blogger who had posted screenshots of messages he claimed were from Tesla threatening a lawsuit on Jinri Toutiao, apologised to the carmaker for causing any offence. The blogger had called Tesla a “rubbish company” and accused it of acting like a “hooligan”. 

The blogger, who also insisted he had not fabricated any Tesla-related content, added: “I also hope that everyone won’t create hostility [towards Tesla] because of quality problems and especially hope the issue will not be elevated to the level [of] discussion between China and the US.”

He told the Financial Times that the alleged warning from Tesla had caused “inconvenience to my normal work and life” but declined to speak further about the matter.

Tesla chief Elon Musk
Tesla, led by billionaire Elon Musk, has faced a publicity nightmare in China even as it comes under growing competitive pressure from local rivals © Pool/AFP via Getty Images

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment on the activities of its Chinese legal department.

Xia Hailong, a lawyer at law firm Shanghai Shenlun, said that Tesla’s warning messages suggested that litigation was not the carmaker’s first choice. 

But if it sued, the company was very likely to win, Xia said, adding that the bloggers’ apologies indicated that they believed they had little chance of winning in court.

The US group, led by billionaire Elon Musk, has in recent months faced a publicity nightmare in China at a juncture when it is facing increasing competition from local rivals.

Chinese state media criticised Tesla for initially saying it would not negotiate with people who make unreasonable requests, claiming it was not taking customer complaints seriously following the incident at the Shanghai Auto Show. That prompted the carmaker to publicly apologise.

Tesla leads sales of high-end passenger vehicles in China’s electric car market. Its sales in the country rose 29 per cent month on month in May to 33,463 vehicles, according to data from the China Passenger Car Association.

Additional reporting by Emma Zhou in Beijing

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