What began as a dry deliberation about semiconductors and gravity probes ended as an impassioned fight over the role of the private university in national life. Stanford President John Hennessy claimed to be defending the “intellectual vitality of the U.S. academy” by protecting its right, and the right of its foreign national students, to perform basic research.****In opposition, Congressman Dana Rohrabacher from California’s 26th Congressional District argued that Stanford is “subsidizing China [to the tune of] hundreds of millions of dollars.”
Democratic Congressman Howard L. Berman, chair of the House Committee on Foreign Affairs, presided over the discussion, which took place at the Arrillaga Alumni Center the morning of January 15. In addition to Congressman Rohrabacher, Democratic Congresswoman Anne Eshoo and Zoe Lofgren also attended. Congressman Rohrabacher and President Hennessy dominated the debate, which strayed from the topic of technological exports and into the realm of immigration policy and U.S.-China relations.
President Hennessey testified as an expert witness, along with Dr. William Potter, director of the James Martin Center for Nonproliferation Studies at the Monterey Institute of International Studies, and Karen Murphy, senior director of trade for Applied Materials.
The classification of which items and pieces of information are dangerous to export is complicated by a nuanced concept called “dual-use.” This refers to the case in which information or items have both military and civilian potential. Most contentious, however, is transfer of information to foreign nationals within our borders, a process known as “deemed exports.”****
The theme of the day was the tension between the pressure to relax export and deemed export controls—which would promote economic competitiveness and innovative research—and the danger that American technology will be used against its own citizens, specifically by the People’s Republic of China.
There are currently two sets of laws governing export control: the Export Administration Regulations (EARs) controlled by the U.S. Department of Commerce, and the International Traffic in Arms Regulations (ITARs) controlled by the U.S. Department of State. The system was last overhauled during the Carter administration.
President Hennessey was the first of three expert witnesses to testify. He made the crucial distinction between classified and fundamental research clear, emphasizing that Stanford looks for projects that deal with basic theoretical questions whose results can be freely published.
Though ITARs and EARs ostensibly contain exceptions for basic research, this is not always put into practice. Hennessy cited past deemed export laws that forbade Chinese nationals from even entering certain biology and chemistry labs, and regulations that have stopped Stanford from pursuing such innocuous projects as creating vaccines and testing Einstein’s theories. Hennessey also called for “sunsetting” the ITARs and EARs lists so they would have to be revised periodically.
Karen Murphy argued that national security in fact depends on having strong technological capability. She also described the global nature of industry and explained that extensive government control was outdated and inflexible. “The stars are aligned as never before,” she concluded, advocating for clearer, simpler rules and more cooperation between government and business.
Professor William Potter cautioned Congress to make sure loosening regulations did not violate existing international non-proliferation agreements. He stuck closely to his field of expertise, arguing that WMD-related goods should be treated with special caution. “We cannot subjugate nuclear security,” said Potter. He was the only witness who was not decisively in favor of cutting regulations, as he strove to communicate the danger of WMDs in the hands of non-state actors.
The question and answer period made clear the ideological divide.
Congressman Rohrabacher began his statements in this period by stating forcefully, “This isn’t complicated. It’s just tough.” He asked if the witnesses would support his proposal for a two-tiered system that rewards allies with looser controls and tightens the rules for autocrats,such as the PRC. This is consistent with Rohrabacher’s self-proclaimed motto, “Free trade for free peoples.”
Each witness began with sentences such as “I’m in favor of complexity.” Immediately afterward, however, Rohrabacher would cut them off with a light-hearted, “So you’re a ‘no.’”
Rohrabacher responded to the crowd’s laughter by unexpectedly leaning forward in his seat, pounding the table, and delivering an incredibly passionate monologue. “If we were talking about Hitler or Stalin no one would be laughing!” he contended. He suggested that America might be dealing “with [another] Adolf Hitler ten years down the road” and described the Chinese government as “ghoulish.” He then turned to the audience and asked, “Do you know what comes out of those [Chinese] jails? The sale of human organs!”
Rohrabacher argued that the possible weakness of U.S. technological exports is not due to a lack of openness, but is rather because we are so open that our inventiveness subsidizes our competitors. If we fall behind in the future, he claimed, it will be because of “capitalists out for short-term profit.”
Perhaps most shocking was Rohrabacher’s accusation that President Hennessy took his position to cater to donors. “This inability comes down to money,” Rohrabacher thundered, before asking Hennessy if it wasn’t true that Silicon Valley companies sometimes donate money to Stanford, and if that might not explain his position. In response, Hennessy pointed out that such contributions are a very small fraction of Stanford’s endowment.
Mr. Steven Kott, the global trade manager for a multinational semiconductor company, was among the audience members skeptical about the United States‘ ability to keep a distance between itself and China. “When China sneezes, we hand them a tissue,” said Mr. Kott. “I understand [Congressman Rohrabacher’s] frustration, but…it’s not that different from us 100-125 years ago.”
The final statements of President Hennessey and Congressman Rohrabacher revealed the divide to be far more fundamental than the beginning of the hearing implied. “Universities should think patriotically. Scientists, university people, are not citizens of the world,” said Rohrabacher. This pronouncement, however, is much easier said than done, especially at a university whose founding grant proclaims that its goal is “To promote the public welfare by exercising an influence in behalf of humanity and civilization.”