Apple CEO Tim Cook attends the business summit being held for the China Development Forum on March 23, 2019 in Beijing.
Laurent Fievet | AFP | Getty Images
Top technology and media leaders shared their experiences of working in and competing with China with lawmakers visiting California this week.
A delegation of about 10 members of the House Select Committee on the Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party made the journey west to meet with industry leaders and subject matter experts on key issues in dealing with China.
During the three-day trip, which began Wednesday, lawmakers were set to meet with Disney CEO Bob Iger and Apple CEO Tim Cook, as well as senior executives from Google, Microsoft, Palantir and Scale AI. Also on the agenda were events with a group of producers, screenwriters and former studio heads who have experience working with China, as well as venture capitalists and experts from Stanford University, according to a source close to the committee.
The trip underscores the key role tech and media industries play in America’s increasingly complex relationship with China. While these industries often rely on China’s large audiences and workforce, reliance on the country raises concerns about human rights and freedom of speech due to government censorship controls and supply chain risks.
The trip follows a historic meeting in California between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Taiwan President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday. That meeting, which former spokeswoman Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also praised, infuriated Chinese Communist Party leaders. The Chinese government called the meeting a “provocation” and promised “decisive action”.
In Hollywood, the select committee’s group of lawmakers caught up on a range of issues related to competing with China. At a meeting with Disney’s Iger and later at a dinner with unnamed studio executives, the focus was on censorship of creative content, according to the source familiar with the committee’s activities. Executives discussed how to deal with self-censorship to ensure a film doesn’t offend the Chinese government even before filming begins, as well as edit requests they receive from the government to screen films in the country.
According to the source, Microsoft President Brad Smith gave a presentation on artificial intelligence in Silicon Valley on Thursday and warned that there is a narrow gap between the US and China in the development of generative AI, which has been popularized by tools like ChatGPT. He also spoke about the mining and processing of rare earth minerals, which are key components in certain technical devices. Smith and executives from Google, Palantir and ScaleAI attended a luncheon with committee members.
Lawmakers also met with experts from Stanford University, including those at the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, according to Steve Blank, founding member of the center. In a phone call after Thursday’s discussion, Blank said he communicated the need for a defense strategy that involves more public-private partnerships across multiple industries to bring the US up to speed with China. Blank said he was impressed by the impartiality and interest shown by lawmakers in attendance.
“In general, the questions you asked would have made you very proud to be an American sitting in this room,” Blank said. “They were non-partisan, and they were to the point, and they were very smart. These people understand the problems and they are trying to help the country get better.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a committee member representing Silicon Valley, told CNBC in a pre-trip phone interview Tuesday that he looks forward to his colleagues visiting his home district. Khanna said it’s always valuable for lawmakers to spend time learning about cutting-edge technologies like AI, quantum computing and climate technology to better understand how to regulate and promote them.
“I think it would be wise for any member of Congress to spend a week in Silicon Valley,” Khanna said. “Technology is going to define so many areas, from economics to national security to our issues of citizenship, and we need people to engage with it, at least understand it.”
Khanna and others have described the purpose of the trip primarily as a reconnaissance mission. While the talks are likely to inform future policy decisions and hearings, lawmakers attended the meetings to learn from industry leaders on the ground.
The group was also scheduled to meet with venture capitalists Thursday, including Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures and SV Angel. Khanna expected the VCs to discuss how the government could “work better with the private sector” to stay ahead of China in key areas of emerging technology.
On Friday, lawmakers were scheduled to discuss cryptocurrency with experts at Stanford before traveling to Cupertino to meet with Cook at Apple headquarters, according to the source familiar with the committee’s plans.
Khanna said he expects business leaders to update policymakers on any progress they have made in diversifying their supply chains out of China and how they would use export earnings from China to invest in the US when it comes to that Meeting with Apple’s CEO Khanna Go said he expects Cook to “speak openly about supply chain issues,” including the complexities and progress of manufacturing diversification outside of China.
In a phone interview during Thursday’s trip, Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., said she sees common themes between the types of challenges the tech and media industries face in relation to China and those the auto industry faces within it home state.
“Every gathering that we’ve attended has, I think, related to Michigan’s economy and our ability to produce as a country,” Stevens said. “One of the issues that I brought to the committee as a manufacturing advocate and someone who understands the interrelationships between manufacturing and technology is: What do we still need to do to stimulate industrial policy in the United States of America to create and build on?” said Stevens. She pointed to the passage of the Chips and Science Act as an example of promoting domestic semiconductor manufacturing.
“Now we’re looking at other areas that are specific to vulnerabilities and supply chain weaknesses that will impact our economy, and apart from chips, we want to be competitive in quantum and artificial intelligence,” Stevens said.
— CNBC’s Steve Kovach contributed to this report.
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