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Primed for Impact

My Advice for China’s Students

I didn’t plan it this way, but my visit to China’s Peking University this week came at an especially appropriate moment.

At a time when some countries seem to be turning inward and retreating from world affairs, China is primed to step up as a global leader. Building on its own successes—which include lifting hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, dramatically improving health, and investing big in clean energy—China can share what it has learned with the rest of the world.

In a talk at Peking University, I encouraged the students there to seize this opportunity and accelerate efforts to improve lives around the world. I emphasized four areas: fighting the diseases of the poorest, such as malaria; helping low-income farmers grow more food; developing sources of reliable, affordable clean energy; and making the most of China’s phenomenally talented computer scientists.

I have been visiting Peking University for more than 20 years. Every time I go, I am inspired by the passion and intelligence on display there. This time was no exception.

Here is a transcript of my remarks:

Remarks as delivered
Peking University
March 24, 2017

LOOKING TO THE FUTURE: INNOVATION, PHILANTHROPY, AND GLOBAL LEADERSHIP

BILL GATES:

Thank you, Professor Lin. It’s great to be here today. Beida (Peking University) has a long history and I’m sure that, next year, as you celebrate its 120th anniversary, you will look back on the incredible contributions it has made to this country.

I’ve been coming to China since the early 1990s, initially for my work at Microsoft. Ten years ago, I was privileged to be named an honorary trustee here at Beida. I remember what a great time I had here in 2008 watching the Olympic table tennis semi-finals between China and South Korea.

As I’m sure you remember, China took the gold medal in every category—the men’s singles, the women’s singles, the men’s and women’s team events. That was on top of two silver and two bronze medals. For someone who’s as big of a fan of table tennis as I am, it was an incredible moment to witness.

And it highlights in one way, the incredible potential China has. This is a country on a quest for excellence, not only to improve itself but to contribute to the whole world.

As China’s economy matures, it is making bold and difficult choices on challenges like energy and pollution. And China is assuming a greater role on critical global issues like climate and development. This matters now more than ever as the world navigates a time of change and uncertainty.

In some rich countries, there is skepticism about how well globalization works for ordinary people. The results of the U.S. presidential election and the Brexit vote in the UK underscore the temptation to turn inward on issues like migration, security, and global development.

It’s great to see China stepping up to fill the leadership vacuum. It is uniquely well-equipped to do so. No other country has accomplished what China has achieved in the last few decades—breaking the relentless cycle of poverty and disease for hundreds of millions of people while modernizing its economy at a scale and speed unprecedented in human history.

Although China can’t be expected to fill a gap in development aid from wealthy countries, it has made a smart choice in tripling its commitment to African development. China has long understood that helping other countries lift themselves out of poverty creates a more stable and secure world for people everywhere.

And by encouraging investment through innovative financing mechanisms like the China-Africa Development Fund, China is strengthening not only Africa’s economic capacity, but also, over time, markets for Chinese goods.

It’s also great to see President Xi’s commitment to eliminate extreme poverty in China by 2020. China did a great job lifting millions out of poverty. But progress has been uneven. Forty-three million people are still living in extreme poverty.

Our foundation looks forward to a new partnership with China that will focus on innovative ways to reduce poverty—through better nutrition and healthcare in rural areas, and by increasing access to financial services for the poor.

China isn’t just striving to reach new heights at home. It is using its own experience fighting poverty and disease to help other countries tackle similar challenges. When I was in Beijing a few years ago, Vice Premier Wang Yang said something that stayed with me. He said: “Africa today is our yesterday.” Now, China is using the lessons it has learned to usher in a new tomorrow for Africa, too.

This is a pretty incredible time to be a young person in China. Your generation’s entrance into the workforce will coincide with your country’s rise as a center of global progress and innovation. The world’s eyes are on China . . . and as the generation now coming of age, the world’s eyes are specifically on all of you.

So, I’d like to spend the rest of my time with you today talking about four areas where I think there are exciting opportunities to use your education, your passion, and your opportunities to unlock more amazing progress—for both China and for the world.  Specifically, health, agriculture, energy, and technology.

First, health. When Melinda and I started our foundation 17 years ago, we asked ourselves: how can we use our financial resources to make the greatest impact? It didn’t take long to realize that improving health was at the top of the list.

When people aren’t healthy, they can’t learn in school or be productive at work. They’re unable to seize economic opportunities or do any of the things they need to do to lift themselves out of poverty.

Melinda and I saw the example of China creating a better life for its people, and it inspired us to see if there was a way to support China’s progress. Over the last decade, our work in China has focused on several of the most persistent domestic health challenges — specifically reducing the incidence of tuberculosis and tobacco-related diseases, preventing HIV transmission, and improving treatment and care for people living with AIDS.

While we are continuing to support progress in these areas, our work in China is evolving along with China’s new priorities. For example, China has a great opportunity to be a global leader in health innovation.

No one exemplifies this better than Professor Tu Youyou. As I’m sure most of you know, Professor Tu is a Beida graduate and the first woman in China to win a Nobel Prize.

Professor Tu was recognized for her discovery of artemisinin, a powerful medicine used to treat malaria. This was one of the most significant breakthroughs in tropical medicine in the 20th century and it has saved millions of lives.  

With its rich pool of talented scientists and its capacity to develop new drugs and vaccines, China was a clear choice for us to locate a new Global Health Drug Discovery Institute. This institute—a collaboration between our foundation, the Beijing Municipal Government, and Tsinghua University—will help speed the discovery and development of new lifesaving medicines.

I had a chance earlier today to meet with some of the Chinese scientists who are driving cutting edge research. For instance, Dr. He Ruyi is the Chief Scientist at the Center for Drug Evaluation of the Chinese Food and Drug Administration (CFDA). His work—and the reforms being carried out by his agency—will create an environment where innovation can thrive. We are working with the CFDA to bring in more experts like Dr. Ruyi to help improve its regulatory capacity so more Chinese health products can be made accessible to the entire world, including developing countries.

One area that China has an incredible chance to lead in is in reducing and eventually eradicating malaria. With China’s leadership, we stand a chance to make malaria the third human disease—after smallpox and, soon, polio—to be wiped off the face of the earth.

A little more than a century ago, malaria was a leading cause of death in nearly every country on earth. There has been great progress since then, and China is on track to eliminate malaria completely in the next few years. But more than 3.2 billion people around the world still live in areas where there’s a risk of malaria infection.

To achieve the goal of global eradication, we need to build on Professor Tu’s discovery of artemisinin and develop more powerful tools—like a single-dose cure and better ways to block transmission of malaria from mosquitos to humans.

China has the potential to develop these new high-impact solutions at a cost that developing countries can afford. We can start today by controlling and eliminating malaria in places like the Mekong River basin and in Africa.

Drawing on lessons learned from its own experience, China can help ensure that every family has bed nets to protect them from infection. And it can help countries strengthen their health and disease surveillance systems to better diagnose, treat, and prevent future cases of malaria.

That’s health. The second area where I believe China can drive global progress is agriculture.  Since 1975, Chinese agricultural productivity has grown at a rate of 12 percent per year—four times the annual rate of growth in Africa.

That hasn’t just fed a large and growing population. It has led to better nutrition and health, higher rural incomes, falling poverty rates, and more labor available to other sectors to drive China’s economic development.

There are many factors that accounted for China’s recent green revolution. One of the most significant is its commitment to agricultural innovation and the work of people like Professor Yuan Longping. A crop scientist at Hunan Agricultural University, Professor Yuan developed hybrid rice varieties that increased crop yields by 20 percent.

China’s continuing advances in rice could be of enormous benefit to millions of smallholder farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa, many of whom today are barely growing enough to feed their families and who will face more difficult weather conditions in the decades ahead.

Since 2008, we have been supporting work by the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences and others to develop new varieties of rice that—when crossed with domestic varieties in countries like Senegal, Tanzania, and Rwanda—will result in high-yielding, stress-tolerant crops that will boost farmer yields and income. But to feed a growing planet, we need to do more.

One of the most exciting efforts is research by Chinese scientists to supercharge the process of photosynthesis in grains. This would significantly increase crop yields while reducing the demand for irrigation and fertilizer.

We also are supporting research by Chinese scientists to improve the health of livestock, which plays a vital role in food security and the rural economy of developing countries. And we are working with the Ministry of Commerce (MOFCOM) and the Ministry of Agriculture to promote sustainable agricultural development throughout Africa.

This brings me to what I think of as China’s third global opportunity: energy innovation. China already is one of the world leaders in renewable energy. And it recently announced that it will spend $360 billion on renewable power sources by 2020. This will pay off handsomely for China domestically, and as a long-term global business opportunity.

It won’t be easy. China faces a big challenge domestically sorting out the right mix of existing and new energy technologies. Many forms of energy will be needed to reduce greenhouse gases and meet energy needs.

One of the things China could do is pioneer next-generation nuclear technology. It will be dramatically safer and substantially cheaper and solve a lot of the challenges with today's nuclear energy. I have a company, TerraPower, that is partnering with China National Nuclear Corporation and other Chinese companies to make this a reality.

I’ve had the opportunity to meet several times with President Xi and am encouraged by his commitment— and by his leadership at the Paris Climate talks. China was one of the 22 countries that committed to doubling their investments in clean energy innovation over the next five years.

I’m also working with Jack Ma and other investors who have pledged to invest $1 billion in the development of early stage energy technology so we can move the best ideas from the research lab to the marketplace.

A fourth area where I see great potential for China is software. When I was at Microsoft, we were so impressed by the quality of computer scientists and developers coming out of universities in China that we established one of our first research labs in Beijing. That was almost 20 years ago.

Today, it is Microsoft’s largest research center outside the U.S.. It’s a phenomenal place, with 200 of the world’s top researchers and developers and more than 300 visiting scientists and fellows.

The best thing about it is that researchers are free to explore what they’re most passionate about, which leads to breakthroughs like Xiaoice, a natural-language chat bot that simulates human conversation.

Some of you may have had conversations with Xiaoice on Weibo, or seen her weather forecasts on TV, or read her column in the Qianjiang Evening News.

Xiaoice has attracted 45 million followers and is quite skilled at multitasking. And I’ve heard she’s gotten good enough at sensing a user’s emotional state that she can even help with relationship breakups.

Besides developing new technologies for Microsoft, the Beijing lab also helps software entrepreneurs who have a great product ideas and need help scaling their business. In the last two years, most of the 125 companies that graduated from the Microsoft Accelerator program were able to secure additional funding. And three of the startups have gone public.

The Beijing lab also supports up-and-coming software developers. We’ve hired more than 5,000 interns in China. And you’ll be happy to know that we’ve recruited more students in the last three years from Beida than from Tsinghua University. But it’s a slim lead, so those of you here in computer science, will have to keep up your good work!

Technology is also helping to power the philanthropic sector in China. It’s a growing sector and one with tremendous potential. In 2015, people contributed 966 million RMB to causes they care about using the four largest online donation platforms.

And the success of 9/9 Charity Day, started a few years ago by the Tencent Foundation, shows what is possible when people have an easy way to get involved and give back. In just three days last year, 6 million people—people like you—raised 305 million RMB in support of more than 3,600 projects. This is just one example of how philanthropy is beginning to blossom here in China.

A lot of the most successful entrepreneurs, like Jack Ma, Pony Ma, Charles Chen Yidan and Niu Gensheng, have helped create the world’s second largest pool of individual wealth. And now they’re taking steps to get involved and give back.

The new charity law that took effect last September opens up more opportunities for people to get engaged. People are coming together at events like the sixth China Social Good Summit held at Beida last fall.

Some of you may decide to work for NGOs that are making life better for the most vulnerable in society. But even if you don’t end up doing that, or to make big financial donations, there are other ways of getting involved. Just the fact that you’re learning about a topic, lending your voice to an issue, or volunteering your time, is important.

What an incredible, motivating thing that is—the belief that you can make the world a better place. There has never been a better moment.

As the geopolitical currents shifts, China has an opportunity to advance progress on the most urgent challenges the world faces. China's leaders are embracing this opportunity, but it will be up to China’s youth to carry this forward.

In the last few decades, millions of people in China have achieved professional and financial success. I’m sure all of you will too, and that's a great thing. I certainly enjoyed every moment at Microsoft and wouldn’t trade it for anything.

But now I’ve also had the opportunity in my philanthropic work to meet people who apply their talents and passion in other ways. Many of these people are impatient optimists. People who believe in the possibility of change and are eager to do something about it.

Doctors courageous enough to risk their own lives to save the lives of others suffering from Ebola. Entrepreneurs using their ingenuity to deliver life-saving drugs to remote villages by drone. And people of all walks of life who volunteer their time to help the homeless or mentor a child at risk.

Maybe you are the person who wants to ensure that every child growing up in poverty has the nutrition they need to do their best in school. Maybe you want to develop the next vaccine that protects everyone from malaria. Maybe you want to design the battery that lights people’s desks at night, or the mobile technology that will allow people to start new businesses.

No matter what your ambition is to improve the world, this is the best time and the best place to do it, and all of you have a great opportunity. I look forward to seeing what you’ll achieve. Thank you!

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