Big Tech CEOs deny having direct experience of China theft

The CEOs for some of the biggest technology giants in the United States who testified to Congress on Wednesday were split on the question of whether they believe the Chinese Communist Party is stealing from U.S. companies.

Apple CEO Tim Cook and Google CEO Sundar Pichai claimed to have no direct experience with it under oath during their appearances before the House Judiciary Antitrust Subcommittee on Wednesday.

Answering a question posed by Republican Rep. Greg Steube of Florida, both Cook and Pichai said they had no “firsthand knowledge” of theft by the Chinese government.

One of the other two witnesses, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos, said he had seen reports about such theft. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was the only one to say unequivocally that Beijing steals from U.S. companies. “I think it’s well-documented that the Chinese government steals technology from American companies,” he said.

The U.S. government believes Chinese espionage and trade secrets theft is occurring on a large scale.

Last week, the Justice Department accused two Chinese hackers, assisted by the Chinese government’s Ministry of State Security, of seeking to steal coronavirus research and engaging in a 10-year global cybercampaign stealing hundreds of millions of dollars worth of information. The Justice Department’s China Initiative combats Chinese espionage and its Thousand Talents Program, and the federal government has charged a number of U.S. scientists.

Republican Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado argued that “Amazon’s marketplace may be knowingly or unknowingly enabling China’s use of forced and slave labor conditions.” He also pointed to reports that more than 80 global companies “have ties to Chinese factories that use enslaved Uighur Muslims” while noting that Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri had introduced a bill “requiring American businesses to certify that their supply chain does not rely on forced labor” and saying he’d be introducing a companion bill in the House.

“Will you certify here today that your company does not use and will never use slave labor to manufacture products or allow products to be sold on your platform that are manufactured using slave labor?” Buck asked all four CEOs.

Cook replied that “forced labor is abhorrent and we would not tolerate it in Apple” and added that “we would terminate a supplier relationship if it were found.” Pichai said he also found it “abhorrent” and “agree[d]” that Google would not use it.

Bezos said “I agree completely,” followed by Zuckerberg, who said: “I agree. We wouldn’t tolerate this, and if we found anything like this we would also terminate any relationship.”

Buck also asked Pichai about his company’s alleged hesitance to do business with the U.S. government and whether “Google could get away with following China’s corporate espionage playbook if you didn’t have a monopolistic advantage in the market.”

Pichai claimed that “we are proud to support the U.S. government” and said Google recently signed a deal with the Pentagon to help with cybersecurity and that it has projects with the U.S. Navy and the Veterans Affairs Department. He claimed, “We have a very limited presence in China.”

Republican Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida asked whether all the companies embraced U.S. values, and they said they did. Gaetz also asked about Google’s artificial intelligence center in China and about the company’s relationships with Chinese universities, which often work closely with the Chinese Communist Party.

“Why would an American company with American values so directly aid the Chinese military but have ethical concerns about working with the U.S. military?” Gaetz asked.

Pichai replied: “We are not working with the Chinese military. It’s absolutely false… We have clarified what we’re doing in China compared to our peers — it is very very limited in nature. Our AI work in China is limited to a handful of people working on open-source projects.”

Gaetz called Pichai’s answer “deceptive” because “Google works with many of the entities that work with the Chinese military in common collaboration.”

National security adviser Robert O’Brien, FBI Director Christopher Wray, Attorney General William Barr, and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have given speeches in recent weeks warning of the threat posed by China. At least four Chinese military members have been charged by DOJ in recent weeks for concealing their ties to China’s military and committing visa fraud while acting as researchers at U.S. universities.

During Cook’s opening statement, he called Apple “a uniquely American company.” But he also praised Huawei, a Chinese tech firm the U.S. views as a national security threat, claiming: “Companies like Samsung, LG, Huawei, and Google have built successful businesses with different approaches. We’re okay with that.”

The U.S. Intelligence Community sees Huawei as closely linked to the Chinese Communist Party and as a potential back door for Chinese spying, deeming it a national security threat. The Pentagon named Huawei as one of 20 Chinese companies operating in the U.S. with direct ties to the Chinese military. The U.S. has engaged in an all-out effort to limit Huawei’s global reach, pushing its “Five Eyes” partners to reject Huawei technology. And the Justice Department unveiled a superseding indictment against Huawei in February, charging it with racketeering and conspiracy to steal trade secrets.

Zuckerberg, the only CEO who called out Chinese theft, warned in his opening statement that U.S. companies could be supplanted by Chinese ones which don’t share U.S. values.

“The tech industry is an American success story,” Zuckerberg said, claiming that U.S. tech is one of the ways that the country “shares its values with the world.” But he noted that “the fastest growing app” is Chinese-owned TikTok and warned: “History shows that if we don’t keep innovating, someone will replace every company here today… If you look at where the top technology companies come from, a decade ago the vast majority were American. Today, almost half are Chinese.”

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