Li questioned why Chinese companies face hurdles in selling high-tech cars to US consumers, while 's Musk was given the red-carpet treatment by senior Chinese officials last month.

(File photo shows William Li (left) and co-founder and president Qin Lihong being interviewed on the eve of the Shanghai auto show in April 2023. Image credit: CnEVPost)

William Li, founder, chairman, and CEO of Nio (NYSE: NIO), slammed US protectionism and compared the US stance to how Tesla (NASDAQ: TSLA) CEO Elon Musk was treated in China.

In an interview with the Financial Times, Li called on the US government to provide equal access to the US market for Chinese electric vehicles (EVs), arguing that automakers should not be enmeshed in political tensions between superpowers.

He questioned why Chinese companies face hurdles in selling high-tech cars to US consumers, while Musk was given the red-carpet treatment by senior Chinese government officials last month.

Musk visited China late last month and was received by high-ranking officials, including Foreign Minister Qin Gang.

"The world should be more open and stop politicising business," Li said in the interview. "The global political climate has become totally different from that when we set up our company back in 2015, especially after the pandemic stirred up division and antagonism," he said.

Li noted that as well as being listed in New York, more than three-quarters of Nio's investors come from outside China.

Entry into the US has been complicated by high tariffs on vehicles from China, the report noted.

"Chinese consumers have a wide range of [new energy vehicles] to choose from. Why can't these products be enjoyed by US consumers as well?" Li said.

He also hit back at perceptions that the company's success in China and the decline of some of its foreign competitors is driven by growing patriotism among young Chinese consumers.

"Chinese consumers are just like consumers everywhere around the world, they focus on quality," he said, warning that foreign brands that fail to keep up with the pace of innovation in China will end up in a " dangerous situation".

Nio is now focusing its overseas efforts on Europe, where it is trying to bring a whole range of its business model from China, including Nio House and battery swap stations.

To date, the company has launched the ES8, ES7, ES6, ET7, ET5, and ET5 Touring in Europe, although the ES lineup has been rebranded as the EL lineup in Europe due to Audi's lawsuit.

In an October 2022 interview with German media outlet Heise Autos, Li said Nio planned to enter the US market by the end of 2025, but US policy complicated matters.

Li said the US government passed the Inflation Reduction Act, making it more difficult for foreign automakers to produce and enter the market.

"We will therefore monitor developments closely," Li said.

In November 2022, Li said in an internal speech celebrating Nio's eighth anniversary that the company's next-generation models would be coming to the US, according to local media outlet LatePost at the time.

He expressed sensitivity to competition at the time, mentioning an interview with a US car company CEO who said Nio would be a major competitor.

"We can't let the people who are learning from us outrun us," Li said at the time.

At the Nio Day 2021 event on December 18, 2021, Li said Nio aims to serve customers in more than 25 countries and regions around the world by 2025.

However, Nio is becoming cautious about large-scale investments due to weak deliveries over the past few months.

In a June 9 analyst call following Nio's first-quarter earnings announcement, Li said the company will delay some of its fixed-asset investments and in Europe will focus on countries it has already entered.

NIO aims for next-gen models to hit US market