Top tech and media executives shared their experiences working and competing with China with lawmakers visiting California this week.
A delegation of about 10 members of the House Committee on Strategic Competition between the United States and the Chinese Communist Party traveled west to meet with industry leaders and subject matter experts on key areas of concern when it comes to relations with China.
During the three-day trip, which began Wednesday, the lawmakers were scheduled to meet with Disney CEO Bob Iger and An apple CEO Tim Cook, as well as high-level executives from Google, Microsoft, Palantir and Scale AI. Also on the agenda were events with a group of producers, screenwriters and former studio executives 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 the technology and media industries play in America’s increasingly complicated relationship with China. While these industries often rely on the vast audiences and workforce available in China, dependence on the country raises concerns about human rights and free speech issues due to government censorship controls, as well as supply chain risks.
The trip comes amid a historic meeting in California between House Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen on Wednesday. That meeting, which former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., also praised, angered the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese government called the meeting a “provocation” and promised “decisive action”.
In Hollywood, the panel of lawmakers from the special committee learned about a number of topics related to competition with China. At a meeting with Disney’s Iger and later at a dinner with unnamed studio executives, censorship of creative content was a big focus, according to a source familiar with the committee’s work. Executives discussed dealing with self-censorship to try to ensure a film doesn’t offend the Chinese government even before filming begins, as well as the editing requests they receive from the government to show films in the country.
In Silicon Valley on Thursday, according to the source, Microsoft President Brad Smith gave a presentation on artificial intelligence, warning that there is a narrow gap between the US and China in the development of generative AI, made popular by tools such as ChatGPT. He also discussed the mining and processing of rare earth minerals, which make up key components in certain technological devices. Smith and executives from Google, Palantir and ScaleAI attended a luncheon with committee members.
The lawmakers also met with experts from Stanford University, including those from the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, according to the center’s founder Steve Blank. In a phone call after Thursday’s discussion, Blank said he communicated the need for a defense strategy that includes more public-private partnerships across industries to get the U.S. up to speed with China. Blank said he was impressed by the bipartisanship and interest he saw from the lawmakers in attendance.
“Overall, the questions they were asking would make you very proud to be an American sitting in this room,” Blank said. “They were bipartisan, they were accurate and they were very smart. These people understand the issues and are trying to help the country be better.”
Rep. Ro Hanna, D-Calif., a member of the committee who represents Silicon Valley, told CNBC in a phone interview ahead of Tuesday’s trip that he was excited for his colleagues to visit his home district. Hanna said it’s always valuable for lawmakers to spend time studying cutting-edge technologies like artificial intelligence, quantum computing and climate technology to better understand how to regulate and promote them.
“I think it would be wise for every member of Congress to spend a week in Silicon Valley,” Hanna said. “Technology is going to define so many areas from the economy to national security to our citizenship issues, and we need people to be immersed in it, at least understand it.”
Khanna and others described the purpose of the trip as primarily a fact-finding mission. While the conversations will likely inform future policies and hearings, lawmakers entered the meetings with the goal of learning from industry leaders on the ground.
The group was also scheduled to meet with venture capitalists on Thursday, including Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures and SV Angel. Khanna expected the VCs to discuss how the government can “better collaborate with the private sector” to stay ahead of China in key areas of emerging technology.
On Friday, lawmakers were scheduled to discuss the cryptocurrency with experts from Stanford before traveling to Cupertino to meet with Cook at Apple headquarters, according to a source familiar with the committee’s plans.
Hanna said he expects business leaders to brief policymakers on the progress they’ve made in diversifying their supply chains outside of China and how they’re using export earnings from China to invest in the US. As for the meeting with Apple’s CEO, Hanna said he expects Cook to “talk frankly about supply chain issues,” including the complexity and progress of diversifying manufacturing outside of China.
In a mid-trip phone interview Thursday, Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., said she sees common threads between the kinds of challenges the tech and media industries face when it comes to China and those she faces the automotive industry in her home country.
“Every meeting we’ve been in, in my opinion, has been about Michigan’s economy and our ability to produce as a country,” Stevens said. “One of the themes that I came into the committee with as an advocate for manufacturing and as someone who understands the relationship between manufacturing and technology is: What more do we need to do to stimulate and advance industrial policy in the United States of America?” Stevens said. She pointed to the passage of the Chips and Science Act as an example of boosting domestic semiconductor manufacturing.
“We are now looking at other areas specific to supply chain vulnerabilities and weaknesses that will impact our economy and, in addition to chips, we want to be competitive in quantum and artificial intelligence,” Stevens said.
— CNBC’s Steve Kovacs contributed to this report.
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