Bill Gates and Xi Jinping met Friday, marking the Chinese leader’s first known one-on-one meeting with a Western business figure in years.
Gates, the co-founder of Microsoft
(MSFT) and world’s fifth-richest man, is in Beijing this week for his first trip to the Chinese capital since 2019, before the pandemic.
During their meeting, Xi called on Gates to help promote US-China relations, greeting the tech tycoon warmly. “I am very happy to see you. We haven’t seen each other for more than three years … and you are an old friend of ours,” Xi said, according to Chinese state media.
Xi went on to tell Gates that he was “the first American friend I’ve seen this year.”
“I always believe that the foundation of the US-China relationship is in the people. I am placing my hope in the American people,” the Chinese leader was quoted as saying.
The billionaire’s latest visit comes at a precarious time for US-China relations. Tensions are running high over the future of AI and advanced semiconductors, raids by Chinese officials on international companies, and heightened fears that China could attack Taiwan.
This is not the first time Xi has called on American business leaders to help improve relations between their two countries. In 2021, Xi wrote to Starbucks
(SBUX)’ former chairman and CEO Howard Schultz, suggesting he help promote bilateral ties, according to Chinese state media.
Gates’ meeting with the leader of the world’s second largest economy came a day after his family’s foundation pledged $50 million toward research in China for drug discovery and treatments of “infectious diseases such as tuberculosis and malaria, which disproportionately affect the world’s poorest,” according to a statement from the Gates Foundation.
The entrepreneur is one of the premier foreign business leaders who have broken through in China, with Microsoft one of the only Western tech giants to retain a presence there as others have been shut out. The company has had a hugely influential research lab in the country for decades.
In previous years, Gates has enjoyed good relations with Xi. In early 2020, the Chinese leader personally sent him a letter of thanks for sending emergency funding to the country in its fight against Covid-19.
But US-China relations have soured recently. Last month, Microsoft warned that Chinese state-backed hackers were likely pursuing capabilities that could be used to “disrupt critical communications” between the United States and Asia Pacific in the event of a future US-China crisis.
The Chinese hackers have been active since mid-2021 and targeted critical infrastructure organizations in the US territory of Guam and in other parts of the United States as part of a spying and information gathering campaign, Microsoft said in a report. Organizations targeted by the hackers cover the maritime, transportation, communications, utility and government sectors, among others.
In a separate May advisory, the FBI, National Security Agency and other US and Western security agencies said they believe the Chinese hackers could apply the same stealthy techniques against critical sectors “worldwide.”
Beijing hit back against the allegations at the time, calling them “a collective disinformation campaign of the Five Eyes coalition” — referring to the intelligence sharing grouping made up of the US, Britain, Canada, Australia and New Zealand, whose security agencies jointly issued the advisory.
Gates’ visit also comes a month after LinkedIn’s latest retreat from China. In May, the Microsoft-owned social network announced it was slashing more than 700 jobs and shutting down its careers app in mainland China.
LinkedIn was the last major Western social media platform still operating in mainland China.
While it will retain a presence there, the company had already pivoted by shutting down the local version of its service in 2021 for a new, China-only platform, citing a challenging operating environment. Now that new platform will be phased out, too.
Gates stepped down from his role as Microsoft chairman nearly a decade ago, and left the board in 2020.
Gates’ primary focus on his trip is “to visit with partners who have been working on global health and development challenges” with his family’s eponymous foundation for more than a decade, he said on Twitter.
The billionaire’s trip to China is the latest in a string of recent visits by global business leaders.
Last month, the CEOs of Tesla
(JPM) and Starbucks
(SBUX) all flew into the country, meeting with government ministers or state officials. That followed similar trips in recent months by the leaders of Apple
(SSNLF), Aramco, Volkswagen
(VLKAF), among others.
— CNN’s Beijing bureau, Steven Jiang and Simone McCarthy contributed to this report.