A Discussion on Science
Between Premier Li Keqiang and Dr. Marcia McNutt

On the afternoon of 13 January 2014, Premier Li Keqiang of the State Council of the People's Republic of China met with Marcia McNutt, Editor-in-Chief of Science magazine, at Ziguangge, Zhongnanhai in Beijing. In the 70-minute meeting, Premier Li and Dr. McNutt had an in-depth exchange on a broad range of science-related topics. Premier Li answered questions from Dr. McNutt on space exploration, China's scientific cooperation with other developing countries, climate change, education, and environmental protection. The following is a transcript of the meeting.

Premier Li: Madame Editor-in-Chief, I am delighted to meet you. Welcome to Beijing. Science magazine has a long history and a wide readership. It is an authoritative and influential journal in the science community. Under your stewardship, fresh progress has been made in further improving the quality of the journal and better serving the general public. I am especially appreciative of your commitment to cooperating with the Chinese science community and making the voices and views of Chinese scientists heard through your journal. I hope that the two sides will continue to advance the cooperation between the Chinese science community on one side and your journal and all its related scientific fields on the other.

McNutt: Thank you very much, Prime Minister Li. I appreciated the words of welcome and the opportunity for this meeting. I believe this opportunity of a meeting between Science magazine and the Chinese Premier is such an honor for me personally and such an honor for Science globally. The importance of this meeting cannot be overstated. This meeting shows to the global science community how important China views scientific information to the future of China and the future of China in helping to use science in tackling global problems.

Premier Li: Talking about science, one would naturally think of time and space. As far as human understanding about science and nature goes, space may be limitless, yet for us individuals time is limited. I am happy to use today's limited time to answer your questions.

McNutt: Thank you. Speaking of space, I want to first congratulate you on your successful Moon landing this last month. We were all cheering you on. As one of the most successful nations in space exploration, I know that China is accelerating plans for a lunar sample return mission and also proceeding with plans to orbit a permanent space station. Can you share with the readers of Science China's long-term vision for space exploration? What would be the balance between robotic missions and manned missions?

Premier Li: Let me first thank you for your kind words about Chang'e-3's successful soft landing and scientific probe on the Moon. In the final analysis, China's manned space and lunar probe missions have a twofold purpose: First, to explore the origin of the universe and mystery of human life; and second, to make peaceful use of outer space. China is a big country with 1.3 billion people. We see our effort in exploring the origin and mystery of the universe and life as our due responsibility to mankind as a major country. And peaceful use of outer space is conducive to China's development. China's manned space program has proceeded to the stage of building a space station, and will move forward step by step. Our lunar probe has made a soft landing on the Moon and sent back relevant information. Next, we will launch an automated mission to bring lunar samples back to the Earth for further study. As for how to balance manned space activities and robotic space study, in my view, robots are an extension of human intelligence and body—an extension with no limit if well designed. So the development of space science needs, to a large part, the use of robots, including in the automated mission for lunar sample return to the Earth and in exploring deeper into space. To some extent, manned space exploration is a test of the strength and even limit of human life. Hence, it is important for the advancement of life science. As human life is precious, we will start with robotic exploration before gradually expanding manned space exploration. Space is all too mysterious. We need to take risks, but not at the cost of human life when conditions are not yet right. The good thing is mankind has invented robots.

McNutt: I remember a time when China was viewed as more insular. But that has really changed. China now funds research in Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and Africa and trains many researchers from abroad. What specific themes are priorities for your science cooperation with other nations? What do you hope the eventual outcome of these efforts will be?

Premier Li: China is a developing country. It needs to fulfill the responsibility required of a big developing country and do what it can to help other developing countries. At the same time, it also needs to draw experience from them. This is a process of mutual assistance and mutual learning. China has a lot of such scientific and technological cooperation with the developing countries in its neighborhood. For example, between China and Southeast Asian countries, ASEAN countries to be exact, there are over 1000 such cooperation projects and over 10,000 mutual visits between scientists and technological professionals of the two sides. At the same time, scientific and technological exchanges between China and African countries are also expanding. China has provided financial assistance to students and scientists from some African countries to study or do research in China. There are three priorities of cooperation: First, development, such as agricultural productivity and poverty alleviation; second, improvement of livelihood, such as disaster prevention and reduction to mitigate losses caused by natural disasters; third, nature and the environment, such as development of clean energy. As I said previously, this kind of help and learning is mutual and it benefits both sides. China will continue to do what it can to help the developing countries at a lower level of development. During such cooperation, China has also gained knowledge and experience, because there are bright people even in a poor country. I learned that you once taught in American universities. I understand that teachers in American universities often draw very good ideas from their students. I am not saying that China is a teacher of other developing countries. Instead, we are each other's teachers and students. My hope is that developed countries will also join in this cooperation process among developing countries as a third party. This will make such cooperation richer. There will be a greater variety of ideas when people from countries at different levels of development pool their wisdom. Science research needs brilliant ideas, and this requires inputs from all sources.

McNutt: Wonderful! So, changing topic somewhat, is addressing climate change a national economic imperative? If so, what fraction of GDP do you see devoting to address the problem?

Premier Li: You asked a big question. Climate change is a common challenge of mankind. For a big and populous country like China to achieve modernization, climate change also poses us a huge challenge. Although climate change, as a term, has not been in existence for a long time, just about 20 to 30 years, it has received much attention in recent years. There is still controversy about whether the main cause of climate change is human activity or the changing dynamics of nature. Nevertheless, there is no denying that human activities do impact climate change. You asked how much of its GDP China should spend on addressing climate change. Since there is not yet agreement on the causes of climate change, it is hard for me to give you a specific number. But one thing is certain. To realize modernization, developing countries must overcome the challenges of the environment and resources facing the whole of mankind. These challenges are related to climate change and are pressing tasks for us. China is committed to achieving modernization, but there is no past precedent for us to follow in human history on how to achieve modernization in an energy-conserving and environment-friendly way. The total population of modern countries in the world now is, at most, around 1 billion. We are keenly aware that China, as a big developing country, now contributes to 11% of the world GDP but takes up 21% of global energy consumption. This means energy efficiency is still quite low in China. But the United States, with 5% of the world population, also accounts for nearly 20% of the world's energy consumption. China and the United States are the largest developing and developed countries in the world. One cannot say that the United States has low energy efficiency, but it is a fact that it has massive energy consumption. I don't wish to make too much comparison with other countries here. In China's case, if being the most populous country in the world is its most prominent national condition, then I should also note that China's per-capita possession of resources, including water and energy, is way below world average, and this is also our basic reality. Therefore, we must uphold the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities. Facing such harsh realities, we must tackle the constraints of energy, resources, and environment. Moreover, coal still accounts for about 66% of China's energy mix, and its emissions have a direct impact on climate change. Hence, we are determined to conserve energy, and this is a top priority. I can tell you with confidence that China's GDP growth in 2013 met the 7.5% target we set at the beginning of the year, and actually it would be higher than 7.5%. Our GDP will surpass US$9 trillion. In achieving that, we did not resort to quantitative easing. We neither increased budget deficit nor printed excess money. Rather, we relied on reform to energize the market and ensured economic sustainability through structural adjustment. That is why China's energy consumption per unit of GDP in 2013 was 3.7% lower than the previous year. This is by no means easy. At the same time, we are vigorously developing clean energy. For example, China's installed hydropower capacity is 278 million kilowatts, and a total of 70 million kilowatts of wind power has been connected to the grid, larger than any other country in the world. We plan to build on that. We have also worked hard to improve the eco-environment through afforestation, returning farmland to forest and desert control. Efforts in returning farmland to forest launched since 2000 are estimated to have realized 160 million tons of carbon sequestration. I know carbon sink is still an issue of controversy in the science community, but I believe an increase of carbon sink helps improve the human living environment. All in all, the Chinese government will make utmost efforts to implement any ecological initiative that contributes to addressing climate change and helps China tackle energy and resource constraints and build a livable eco-environment. This is not only China's responsibility to mankind but also what China needs to achieve sustainable development. There is another point which is highly important, that is, energy and resource conservation and environmental protection also contribute to GDP growth.

McNutt: So, energy and resource conservation will also be a boost to GDP growth.

Premier Li: With all the current policies in place, China's energy-saving and environmental industries will have a market value of 4.5 trillion RMB yuan by 2015, and will soon approach US$1 trillion. That is why many companies and R&D institutions of nuclear power, carbon capture, and clean energy in developed countries have focused their eyes on the huge Chinese market. Therefore, one should not set the efforts to tackle climate change against economic growth. Economics was regarded by many as part of science in the 20th century. One very important reason is it invented the concept of GDP.

Mcnutt: Wonderful! I can't wait to tell the U.S. government about this. I know China is building elite institutions for star performers, for example, an MIT and a Harvard in China. But China also has the need to promote wide geographical equity so that no matter where a child is born, there will be institutions all over the country that have good access to science and researchers. Are there programs in place to advance both elite institutions and geographical excellence in education and research? Can you give me examples?

Premier Li: I noticed that you put MIT before Harvard. I greatly appreciate this way of yours in showing your love for the place where you worked. But in China, under the influence of oriental culture, when graduates from Peking and Tsinghua Universities talk about their alma maters, they tend to put the other university ahead of their own, probably for the sake of modesty. The elite institutions you mentioned are necessary because they play a leading role in scientific and social development. At the same time, we must also advance equity in education, as it not only is important for social fairness but also serves as the foundation for cutting-edge scientific development. It's like a big pyramid: Without a solid foundation, there would not be a high top. The base and the top shouldn't go against each other. Rather, they form an integral whole. In more than three decades of reform and opening up, China has worked hard to develop higher education, including elite institutions. We will continue to build some world-class universities and attract top-notch professionals. We place greater emphasis on educational fairness. For example, the share of poor students in key Chinese universities was declining. This is unfair for children in China's underdeveloped and poor areas. It also makes all-round and high-end scientific progress unsustainable. Last year, the Chinese government took strong measures to ask key universities to enroll more rural students from the underdeveloped central and western regions, especially poor areas. Student selection is still conducted on a fair basis. Such a requirement has paid off. In 2013, the share of rural students in key universities increased by 10% over the previous year. And recruitment of students from poor and rural areas will be further expanded in the future. We must not allow it that children in poor and rural areas be left behind at the starting point of their life. They are bright people and can make their contribution to the society. Over 30 years ago, I myself was a peasant in a very poor rural place of China. I took the college entrance examination and was admitted by Peking University, which, in a way, changed my life. I am not saying that I am more intelligent than others or rural children should all aspire to become Premier. What I mean is that we need to give all rural children an equal shot at life. Our government has provided 50 billion RMB yuan in scholarships or student loans to finance the higher education of children from poor regions and families. And such financial support will continue to increase.

McNutt: Do we have time for the last question?

Premier Li: Sure.

McNutt: The Chinese government has moved aggressively to curb air and water pollution. Because of the increasing movement of people to the cities, the amount of crowding in the cities, and more affluent lifestyles of the Chinese people, environmental conditions are continuing to deteriorate. What new measures can be taken to protect the environment?

Premier Li: In the course of pursuing modernization, China's energy and resources consumption will continue to rise. We hope to pass the peak at an early date, yet it will take some time. China has become a middle-income country. With their basic life needs met, the Chinese people are paying more attention to the quality of life, hoping to have clean air and water in particular. The reform and opening-up program launched 35 years ago is a war China declared on poverty. Nowadays, we still need to fight this battle, as we still have nearly 200 million Chinese living in poverty by the standard of the World Bank. At the same time, we need to declare war on environmental pollution, on unclean water and dirty air. China's per-capita possession of water resources is just a quarter of the world average. We must work very hard to develop water-saving technologies. In this process, we must, first and foremost, ensure the safety of drinking water, just as we both need to drink water and cannot live one day without water. Unclean water takes a heavy toll on human health. But you can rest assured that drinking water in most parts of China is safe, and you can drink it as you like. (Dr. McNutt took a sip from the glass of water on the table. Premier Li said, "Thank you for believing my word.") But in some rural areas, 100 to 110 million people still have no access to safe drinking water. Last year, with the support of central and local budgets and funds raised among individuals, we solved this problem for over 60 million people. The plan is to extend safe drinking water to another 60 million people this year, and the remaining 50 million next year. By then, the problem will be basically solved. However, the unsafe water under national monitoring, or Grade V water, still accounts for more than 10% of total water resources in China, and it requires a process to eventually resolve this issue. We must take resolute action to keep reducing water pollution. Another thing is air. There is pollution in both urban and rural areas, and it is more serious in cities. We are determined to tackle the PM2.5 in Beijing and other key areas, which is the biggest cause for the smog in big cities. The fact that the Chinese government has decided to start with PM2.5 in its air treatment campaign is a testament of our courage. The WHO recommends developing countries to monitor particles ranging from PM10 to PM2.5. So far, I have not seen any other developing country monitor PM2.5 on such a large nationwide scale as China, though there are similar actions in individual cities of some developing countries. We not just monitor it, but also take action to treat it. In tackling the major factors contributing to PM2.5, we raise fuel standards to cut vehicle exhaust, we develop clean technologies for coal use, we take steps to prevent the spread of dust on construction sites, and we carry out afforestation in deserts and return cultivated land to forests. We aim to gradually reduce and even eliminate those factors. We will unswervingly fight this tough battle. The experience of some developed countries tells us that the campaign against PM2.5 will take some time. For Beijing and coastal cities in eastern China, more wind means less haze. But we cannot rely solely on the power of nature. We believe in science, so we are willing to discuss this issue with Science magazine. Of course, we are also willing to discuss it with Nature. (Laughter)

McNutt: The Clean Air Act worked in the United States. Cities like Los Angeles are a basin too and had horrible air conditions. But the Act worked and now smog is very rare. Keep up what you are doing now. It will work.

Premier Li: Thank you for the information. We need to combine the forces of science and the rule of law.