News & Voices

Bill Gates and Justin Yifu Lin speak to students at Peking University


Peking University, March 24, 2017: Bill Gates, the wealthiest man in the world and a philanthropic activist, visited Peking University today. He delivered a speech titled “Looking to the Future: Innovation, Philanthropy & Global Leadership” at Yingjie Overseas Exchange Center. He also had a face-to-face conversation with Justin Yifu Lin,  professor at National School of Development (NSD). A Q&A session followed with interaction between Gates and PKU students.

In his speech, Gates talked about several of China’s opportunities which he considered significant, including health, agriculture, energy innovation, software development and philanthropy. The growing energy needs of China and the world requires careful planning. China already aims to increase investment in renewable power sources. Gates mentioned that the China National Nuclear Corporation will also provide help with renewable energies. Gates was particularly encouraged by his several meetings with President Xi Jinping and Xi’s commitment to several areas including clean energy innovation.
Gates believes that China has great potential in software. Microsoft opened its first research lab in Beijing almost 20 years ago with talented researchers, developers and scientists collaborating together. The best thing for these talents is the freedom to explore. He gave Xiaobing, an intelligent chatbot developed by Microsoft China, as an example. Xiaobing stimulates human conversation and can apparently even help users in a relationship breakup. Xiaobing has more than 5 million followers on Weibo.
Gates also said that philanthropy has started to develop in China. Successful entrepreneurs like Jack Ma are now taking some of their time to get involved in philanthropy and give back. More opportunities are being created to get more and more people engaged.
Gates concluded his speech by expressing his belief in the possibility of change. He encouraged his audience to embrace opportunities: “This is the best time and best place to do it, and all of you have a great opportunity.”
Professor Lin commented that Gates had given a much inspiring speech. Quoting Professor Tu Youyou’s words, Lin said, “Human beings are faced with all kinds of threats. But I share the belief in your 2017 annual letter. Future will surprise the pessimists”.
Lin later raised several questions and discussed them with Gates. “What are the reasons for China, as a developing country, to help other developing countries?” Lin asked. To this question, Gates answered from two perspectives. The first was from a humanitarian perspective concerning the welfare of all human beings, especially those of children. The other one was from a more “selfish” perspective, by stopping disease from spreading globally, issues such as refugees and increased military expense can be avoided. Gates also praised China’s consistent solidarity with countries in Africa, even when China was very poor. “One Belt, One Road, sets a good example to reach out and help other countries,” Gates said.
Lin commented that the Gates Foundation has served as a bridge to connect different countries’ philanthropists and asked for some suggestions from Gates. Gates said that he started his philanthropy career rather late. He encouraged people to start earlier than him. He also suggested that China does not necessarily need to follow other countries’ footsteps. “They will do it in a different way,” Gates said.
In the Q&A session, thought provoking questions were asked by students as well as professors. One professor was particularly concerned about the fact that more and more students are choosing to enroll in soft sciences such as economics, instead of hard sciences such as hardware and engineering. Gates thought differently. He held the opinion that China has a rather healthy mix today, with a lot of students still studying engineering. In his conversation with Lin, he also discussed education issues. He thought that humanities are also very important, helping students develop the ability to write and ask questions. He himself chose to go to Harvard instead of MIT partly because he thought Harvard was a more comprehensive university. His own son wishes to study public policy and Gates has encouraged him to decide based on his own interest. “Smart people are also needed in the field to make government work well,” Gates said.
Some students were more concerned about charitable careers. When asked about how to persuade others to participate in voluntary activities, Gates said, he and Melinda set up their foundation not simply to raise money, but to encourage people to give. “Some tragedies happen so far away that it is hard to get people to care. But distance has now been shortened thanks to the Internet”, Gates said, emphasizing the importance of innovation. He also suggested face to face communication between refugees and other people to bridge the gap. Another international student from Nigeria was concerned about his own country’s poverty issues and sustainable development. Gates used new technologies such as the cell phone to demonstrate the importance of technological innovations. “Cell phones can be used to track information from the government so that common people can be informed at any time,” Gates said.
One senior student from the School of Foreign Languages asked about Gates’ view of wealth. Gates talked about his friend, fellow philanthropist Warren Buffett. He said that Buffet’s theory was to accumulate money and his wife would give it away. When Buffet’s wife passed away, he asked Gates to help him give it away. He believes that when people decide to give back is a personal choice, but the sooner the better.

At the end of the event, the host introduced Liu Wei, a world table tennis champion and now a PKU professor. Representing PKU, Professor Liu gave her present to Gates, a giant table tennis bat signed by China’s table tennis champions. Gates, also a table tennis fan, received the gift pleasantly surprised.