High-profile tech and media executives shared their experiences of working in and competing with China with lawmakers who visited 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 trip west to meet with industry leaders and subject matter experts about key areas of concern when it comes to dealing with China.
Over the three-day trip that kicked off on Wednesday, lawmakers were scheduled to meet with Disney CEO Bob Iger and 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 with venture capitalists and Stanford University experts, according to a source close to the committee.
The trip highlights the key role tech and media industries play in America’s increasingly complex relationship with China. While these industries often rely on the massive audiences and workforces available in China, dependence on the country raises concerns of human rights and free speech issues because of the government’s censorship controls, as well as supply chain risks.
The trip comes on the heels of 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, enraged the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. The Chinese government called the meeting a “provocation” and promised “resolute actions.”
In Hollywood, the group of lawmakers from the select committee learned about a range of topics related to competition with China. In 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 the source familiar with the committee’s activities. Executives discussed dealing with self-censorship to try to ensure a movie won’t offend the Chinese government even before filming begins, as well as edit requests they receive from the government in order to show films in the country.
In Silicon Valley on Thursday, according to the source, Microsoft President Brad Smith gave a presentation about artificial intelligence, warning that there is a narrow gap between the U.S. and China in the development of generative AI, which has been made popular by tools such as ChatGPT. He also discussed rare earth mineral mining and processing, which make up key components in certain tech 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 from the Gordian Knot Center for National Security Innovation, according to center founding member Steve Blank. In a phone call following the discussion Thursday, Blank said he communicated the need for a defense strategy that involves more public-private partnerships across different industries to get the U.S. up to speed with China. Blank said he was impressed by the bipartisanship and interest he saw from lawmakers in attendance.
“In general, the questions they asked, you would have been very proud to be an American sitting in that room,” Blank said. “They were bipartisan, and they were to the point and they were very smart. These people understand the issues, and they’re trying to help the country be better.”
Rep. Ro Khanna, D-Calif., a committee member who represents Silicon Valley, told CNBC in a phone interview ahead of the trip on Tuesday that he was excited for his colleagues to visit his home district. Khanna said it’s always valuable for lawmakers to spend time learning about cutting-edge technologies such as AI, quantum computing and climate tech to better understand how to both regulate and foster it.
“I think it would be wise for every member of Congress to spend a week in Silicon Valley,” Khanna said. “Technology is going to define so many fields from the economy to national security to our issues of citizenship, and we need people to be immersed in it, at least understanding it.”
Khanna and others have described the purpose of the trip as primarily a fact-finding mission. While the conversations will likely inform future policymaking and hearings, lawmakers entered the meetings aiming to learn from industry executives on the ground.
The group was also slated to meet with venture capitalists on Thursday, including Andreessen Horowitz, Khosla Ventures and SV Angel. Khanna expected the VCs would discuss how the government could “better collaborate with the private sector” to stay ahead of China in key areas of emerging technology.
On Friday, lawmakers were set to discuss cryptocurrency with experts at Stanford before traveling to Cupertino to meet with Cook at Apple’s headquarters, according to the source familiar with the committee’s plans.
Khanna said he anticipated the business leaders would inform the policymakers of any progress they’ve made in diversifying their supply chains out of China and how they use export revenue from China to invest in the U.S. When it comes to the meeting with Apple’s CEO, Khanna said he expected Cook would “speak candidly about the supply chain issues,” including the complexities and progress of diversifying production outside of China.
In a phone interview partway through the trip on Thursday, Rep. Haley Stevens, D-Mich., said she saw common themes between the sorts of challenges the tech and media industries face when it comes to China and those facing the automotive industry in her home state.
“Every meeting we’ve been in, in my opinion, has related back to Michigan’s economy and our ability to manufacture as a country,” Stevens said. “One of the themes that I came into the committee with as a manufacturing champion and as someone who understands the interrelatedness between manufacturing and tech is: What else do we need to do to incentivize and grow 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 incentivizing domestic semiconductor manufacturing.
“Now, we’re looking at other areas specific to supply chain vulnerabilities and weaknesses that are going to impact our economy and, aside from chips, we want to be competitive in quantum and artificial intelligence,” Stevens said.
— CNBC’s Steve Kovach contributed to this report.