Generation 40s – 四十世代

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Inside the AI revolution that’s reshaping Chinese society

Artificial intelligence, once a novelty, is now being applied in everyday life. From academia to business, government and the military, ambitious China is betting big on AI, raising US suspicions yet offering opportunities for collaboration

Seven-year-old Chen Jiahao has a problem sum he can’t solve and he can’t wait to get home from school to pose the question to his all-knowing maths tutor.

His tutor is amazing, the boy says. Just snap a photograph of the question and the tutor will provide every possible approach to solve the problem, step by step – all in a split second.

Jiahao’s tutor is inside his mother’s smartphone. It is, in fact, an app that draws on artificial intelligence (AI) technology to solve challenging maths problems for primary school children.

And it’s just one of many AI-enabled apps Jiahao uses daily on his mother’s phone. When the boy started primary school in Beijing, his teachers recommended that his parents install the apps on their phones. The software give out school assignments, grade pupils’ work and even generate unique sets of exercises for each child based on their areas of weakness.

“Jiahao likes his AI teachers,” said his mother, Yu Ting, adding that her son spends at least two hours on the AI apps every day. “He greets my phone as eagerly as he greets me.”

AI society

Jiahao’s story shows how AI is shaping modern Chinese society as the technology shifts slowly but surely from the realm of mere novelty towards common, everyday application.

On Chinese social media, video-sharing platforms and shopping sites, AI technology is already widely used to cater specifically to individual tastes and preferences.

For example, online news aggregator Toutiao provides a selection of articles tailored for its users based on information such as their age, gender and location. Video-streaming website iQiyi recommends programmes based on users’ search and viewing history.

Ali Xiaomi, the AI-powered customer service chatbot of tech giant Alibaba, which owns the South China Morning Post, can reply to a million text queries and takes thousands of phone calls from online shoppers every day. The use of AI has cut e-shops’ customer service costs by 90 per cent, according to Alibaba.

That’s not all. An AI traffic controller introduced on trial in Hangzhou in Zhejiang province last year eased vehicle flow on roads, allowing cars to pass at speeds of up to 11 per cent faster than usual, state-owned broadcaster China Radio International reported.

A missing man from Fujian province was reunited with his parents thanks to AI analysis of facial recognition data. Photo: Handout

In April, search giant Baidu’s AI system reunited a couple in Chongqing with their long-lost son. The machine analysed a photograph of the six-year-old boy, who went missing 27 years ago, and matched it to the face of a 33-year-old man in Fujian province, the Beijing Evening News reported. DNA tests confirmed the match.

What, exactly, is AI?

Popular culture, especially in the West, often either romanticises the notion of artificial intelligence – such as in the 2013 Hollywood film Her, in which a lonely man falls for his “female” AI operating system – or portrays it negatively, as in the hit US television series Westworld, where oppressed androids in an AI theme park turn murderous against their abusive human guests.

In reality, AI technology – at least in its current stage – is both less romantic and frightening, but its possibilities may be every bit as boundless as imagined in the movies.

AI refers to a computer software that mimics intelligent human behaviour. Creating such intelligent systems requires teaching machines to learn for themselves – an application of AI known as machine learning – rather than manually teaching them everything there is to know.

Machine learning involves feeding computer systems with large volumes of data and programming the systems to interpret the information for themselves through pattern recognition. The machines hence “learn” by calculating probabilities and drawing conclusions from patterns found in the data at its disposal.

A powerful form of machine learning is deep learning, which categorises information according to hierarchical layers of concepts. The arrangement allows systems to interpret complex data with greater flexibility, speed and accuracy.

“AI is like a child,” said Professor Feng Jufu, a machine learning scientist at Peking University’s school of electronics engineering and computer science. “The more people use it, the faster it learns. The more it learns, the faster it improves.”

United States’ rising rival

China, whose population of 1.38 billion people makes it the world’s biggest user base and data pool, is a “paradise” for machine learning technology, Feng said.

And the nation – from its computer scientists, tech businesses, the government and military – is exercising its competitive advantage.

For decades, AI initiatives have been launched and developed in the United States and the field dominated by American experts. But now, the balance appears to be tipping as China’s AI technology comes up neck and neck with that of the US.

There was no clearer demonstration of this shift than what occurred at the annual meeting of the world’s biggest AI research community this year.

The Association for the Advancement of Artificial Intelligence rescheduled its yearly event in New Orleans, originally set in January, to the following month after finding out that the dates conflicted with China’s Lunar New Year holiday, The Atlantic magazine reported.

“Our organisation had to almost turn on a dime and change the conference venue to hold it a week later,” the association’s president Subbarao Kambhampati was quoted as saying.

The clash might not have mattered in the past, but with Chinese scientists now producing more research papers on deep learning than Americans, the meeting would have been pointless if the Chinese could not attend, according to the association.

An artificial intelligence backed by face recognition function which can used in mobile payment is demonstrated in Wuhen on Nov. 16, 2016. Photo: Simon Song

“The race is tight,” said Li Xiaowei, executive director of the Chinese Academy of Sciences’ State Key Laboratory of Computer Architecture in Beijing. China has only one main competitor – the US – and its goal was to beat its rival on the other side of the Pacific, he added.

Li said he and colleagues were developing computer chips, built specifically for machine learning, that would significantly boost the speed of an AI system, running “as fast as a car against a bicycle” compared with existing AI machines on traditional CPUs.

Chinese researchers have already developed AI chips with faster performance on specific tasks such as image recognition and natural language processing, but they still consumed more energy and tended to be less reliable than American-made chips, Li admitted.

Chinese ambitions

While US experts are still making most of the fundamental AI breakthroughs, this may soon change as Chinese tech giants like Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, with access to the vast amounts of data needed for AI training through their millions of customers, inject massive investment into the technology, setting up their own AI research laboratories to create new products at a speed and scale never before seen in the West.

China was the world’s second biggest investor in AI enterprises last year, injecting US$2.6 billion into the sector, according to Chinese think tank the Wuzhen Institute. The US topped the list with US$17.9 billion.

Smaller firms aren’t passing up the chance to make a foray into AI either. This month, AI robots owned by two Chinese education-tech companies sat the maths section of the nation’s notoriously difficult college examinations.

Press gathered in Chengdu earlier this month as a robot sat the maths test for the national college entrance exam. Photo: Xinhua

One, which took the test in an isolated room at a technology park in Chengdu in Sichuan province, scored 70 per cent, spending about 20 minutes completing the questions. The other, which sat the test in Beijing and was connected to the internet, scored 90 per cent in less than 10 minutes. The second bot’s score was good enough to gain admission into China’s top universities.

“Artificial intelligence has undergone several waves of hype over the past decades, but this time it’s different. This time, it may really come alive,” said Feng, the Peking University academic.

Over in the public sector, the Chinese government has pinpointed AI as a key area for advancement in its latest five-year plan. Top technology official Wan Gang said in March a national development plan was being drafted that would see AI technology adopted in areas including “the economy, social welfare, environmental protection and national security”.

Last year, the Chinese government said it would create an AI market worth more than US$15 billion by 2018. Beijing has already sunk millions into studying AI in universities and research institutes around the nation. It is also already applying the technology across the full spectrum of governance.

Traffic authorities in the city of Jiaxing in Zhejiang province this month began using an AI coach in a driving school. The system monitors students’ driving behaviour and detects mistakes they make, instructing them through a speaker and rating their performance, the Jiaxing Daily reported. The passing rate of students who learned with the AI coach was 20 per cent higher than those who had human coaches.

Over in China’s most innovative city of Shenzhen in Guangdong province, the use of a tiny chip in public surveillance cameras has helped police crack hundreds of cases and find several lost children. The intelligent chip whittles down the speed of human facial recognition to just a few seconds.

And in Jiangsu province’s city of Nantong, an AI judge will be put into use later this year to organise and analyse legal documents and material as well as perform paper work to lighten the workload for human judges. The system is expected to speed up the handling of legal cases by 30 per cent, the Nantong Daily reported.

US suspicions (and collaboration)

China has also ventured into AI on the military front. The nation is developing cruise missiles with “a very high level of artificial intelligence and automation”, the China Daily quoted a senior missile designer as saying last August.

As the country’s AI capabilities grow, so have US suspicions. The Pentagon had concerns about Beijing’s access to US-developed AI technology, the Reuters news agency reported this month.

Citing a leaked document, the report said the US defence department recommended blocking Chinese organisations from investing in some American start-ups working on cutting-edge technologies. The report suggested Washington fears that its advanced algorithms might be re-purposed for Chinese military use.

Individual Chinese AI researchers might also have become a concern for the US government, according to Zhang Lijun, an associate professor of computer science with Nanjing University’s learning and mining from data group in Jiangsu province.

“Each time we go to the US for an academic conference, we encounter extensive background checks by the US embassy,” Zhang said. But if the US stopped issuing visas to Chinese AI scientists, the move would do as much damage to America as it would to China, he added.

Despite Washington’s concerns, American companies are still flocking to join hands with their Chinese counterparts in AI research given the sheer amount of funds injected into the industry. And the collaborations have seen considerable progress in the field.

In May, Google’s AlphaGo AI programme – developed to play the Chinese board game Go – defeated world champion Ke Jie in a series of three matches, all of which the machine won.

The strategy game, played on a 19×19 grid board with more permutations than the estimated number of atoms in the observable universe, was previously believed too sophisticated for the machine to handle. Scientists had predicted AI would take at least a decade to decisively conquer the game; the final match took less than four hours.

The same month, Microsoft’s Chinese-language chatbot Xiaoice published the world’s first collection of AI-authored poems in a book titled The Sunlight That Lost The Glass Window. The book caused a stir among China’s literary circle, with some poets hoping the technology would revive appreciation of the art. Pirated copies have already appeared on Chinese websites, reflecting interest in the book.

“The US is good at coming up with new ideas in fundamental research while China is good at implementing these ideas in applications. International collaboration has played a key role in the rapid development of AI technology in recent years,” Zhang at Nanjing University said.

The future

All these advancements are just the beginning of an AI revolution, according to the Peking University academic Feng.

“The only limit is your imagination,” he said, adding that AI technology could have even broader and deeper applications in people’s lives.

The Chinese Academy of Sciences’ expert Li concurred. The AI user experience of the future would be vastly different from today, as with software and hardware upgrades newer AI machines would become far faster and more human-like.

The collection of AI written poems, The Sunlight That Lost The Glass Window. Photo: Handout

For instance, Feng said, today’s exam taking robot could be developed into an exam-setting machine. Like AlphaGo considered permutations never conceived by human players in the past, the AI system could pose students challenging questions that would push them to achieve results beyond what they thought possible.

“If you can answer maths questions designed by machines, you should then be able to easily tackle questions designed by humans,” he said.

But Professor Li Qingan, an educational psychologist at Beijing Normal University, cautioned against the unregulated use of AI in schools.

“Artificial intelligence may create super students, but it can also turn them into cold-blooded creatures with little care for how others think and feel,” Li said. “Thirty years from now, we may regret giving our children over to AI.”

There is also a limit to AI systems, according to professor Huang Biqing, a robotics scientist with Tsinghua University.

“If human-generated data can no longer improve an AI system’s performance, the machine will treat it as noise,” Huang said, adding that this meant the system would regard human input as no longer necessary and could evolve based on its own machine-generated data.

Chen Yi, the father of Jiahao the primary schoolboy who loves his AI tutors, recalls his childhood addiction to Nintendo’s Game Boy as he observes his son interacting with the apps on his wife’s smartphone.

“This is different from my childhood addiction,” Chen said, referring to Jiahao’s attachment to the AI-enabled programmes. “Jiahao’s condition is more like, I don’t know, a kind of dependence?”

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Hong Kong must focus on innovation and science to maintain its edge over economic rivals

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Ken Chu says its core values and a free, open market still set Hong Kong’s economy apart despite some challenges, but continued success in the digital age will depend on its ability to innovate and upgrade

Hong Kong has been named the world’s most competitive economy by the IMD Business School in Switzerland for the second straight year. The title is indicative of our strong fundamentals due to our core values and, together with “one country, two systems”, this sets Hong Kong apart from its rivals.

Therefore, we must safeguard and uphold our core values for continued economic success.

Given its small economy and market size, Hong Kong does not enjoy the economies of scale like mainland China. Relatively high wages mean Hong Kong does not have the advantage of competing on cost.

But, as Financial Secretary Paul Chan Mo-po noted shortly after the IMD rankings were announced, we do have a solid legal framework and rule of law that international investors feel comfortable with, an efficient administrative system, and sound banking, financial and transport infrastructure. Above all, we have an open and free market.

We must strive to maintain the cosmopolitan nature and openness of our market for Hong Kong to play the role of a super connector, for the mainland as well as the world at large. Only then will Hong Kong be able to maintain its long-term competitiveness. Competitiveness could mean high productivity, the capacity to produce more units with a given set of raw materials than rivals; it could mean efficiency, or producing at the lowest cost; it could also mean having what competitors do not.

Management guru Peter Drucker believes that, in the 21st century, knowledge-worker productivity is the real competitive advantage. That seems logical, in view of the new economy sweeping the globe. Economies everywhere need more knowledge-based workers, such as programmers, system analysts, animation artists, product designers, and so on. The more productive they are, the more competitive the new digital age economy is. If we agree, we should train workers with high technical expertise, and scientific and technological knowledge.

Harvard professor Michael Porter says competitiveness hinges on the capacity of industry to innovate and upgrade. This could be another way to maintain our competitiveness. However, we seem to have problems in innovation and science.

Hong Kong continues to slip down the Global Innovation Index rankings. Moreover, the Programme for International Student Assessment (Pisa), says Hong Kong’s performance has dropped significantly in science. Our STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) curriculum must be strengthened to make future generations tech-savvy, or Hong Kong will lose out.

Fortunately, we still have a distinct edge over competitors – our strategic location. Being next to innovation hub Shenzhen and within the Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macau Greater Bay Area lets us tap a rich pool of technological talents and innovation resources.

Setting up a tech park at the Lok Ma Chau Loop and boosting financial aid to innovation start-ups represent the right way to spur technological advances.

Yet, there are challenges that undermine our competitiveness – high living costs, exorbitant rents, escalating labour costs, damage to our natural landscape and a widening wealth gap, highlighted by the latest Gini coefficient index.

After all, a city needs not only “hardware”, such as infrastructure, financial systems and innovation parks, to boost its competitiveness, but also people to drive economic growth and energise innovation. If talented people find it isn’t worth working and living in the city, they will eventually abandon it.

Dr Ken Chu is group chairman and CEO of the Mission Hills Group and a National Committee member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference

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假新聞當道與我無關 ?




當資訊接收不能改善人類生活,反而帶來反效果時,就出現所謂的「資訊煙霧」(Data Smog),令人無法分辨真假,不同意見的人亦無法達到共識,反而被其他不重要的、不正確的訊息模糊誤導。這情況令假新聞應運而生,對社會帶來的影響不容忽視。



「同溫層」出現的其中一個重要原因,是由於社交媒體的演算法(Algorithm),會根據用者喜好,提供他們感興趣的內容,久而久之,用者能接觸到、有別於其認同的內容會愈來愈少,相反只看到自己喜歡或同意的內容。這種做法,用者可能得到更針對性、更符合其需要的內容,然而用者只會聽到一種聲音,造成迴響效應(Echo Chamber Effect),不論真假都照單全收。

加州大學戴維斯分校政治系教授Robert Huckfeldt教授曾於其著作Political Disagreement中指出,新出現的資訊能夠影響一個人改變原有立場的機率,與其身處的社會網絡裏意見分布息息相關。套用在社交媒體的例子,在「同溫層」裏的人,被新資訊說服而改變態度的機會,會較其他身處意見不一群體的人為低。






史丹福大學去年一項針對年輕人如何分辨網上資訊的調查發現,82%的中學生無法分辨網站上的贊助內容與真實新聞,而很多學生亦只依據推特(Twitter)內容是否詳細、是否有照片等來判斷內容真偽,而非資料的來源。可見「數位原生代」(Digital Natives)——即一直活在互聯網世代、以網絡世界作為資訊來源和日常生活的主要平台的一代——在接收和判斷網上資訊的能力問題,實需要正視。

今年年初,經濟合作及發展組織(OECD)宣布,將在學生能力國際評估計劃(The Programme for International Student Assessment,PISA)中,增加「全球競爭力」(Global Competence),測試學生批判思維及辨識失實資料的能力,對社交媒體的資訊分析亦包括在內。

OECD的教育及技能主管Andreas Schleicher更進一步表示對社交媒體引致相同意見的人互相「圍爐取暖」的憂慮,希望提升學生分辨網上資訊可信程度的能力,以及開放接收不同立場的內容的態度。

另外,業內一眾科技企業有見假新聞的影響,已開始着手解決問題,如由Facebook及一些學術單位和非牟利組織發起的「新聞誠信倡議」(The News Integrity Initiative)計劃是其中一例。最近不少網上媒體或智庫等亦推出了「即時查核」(Fact Check)的網上功能,在重要的事件上發揮分辨消息真偽的作用。



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Cold calling in Hong Kong is so out of control, it makes you contemplate murder

South China Morning Post
CommentInsight & Opinion

Yonden Lhatoo is perplexed by the government’s reluctance to crack down on telemarketers, despite the public nuisance they cause

I don’t know if people remember any more, but it used to be the most annoying thing in the world to be “rickrolled” – clicking on a hyperlink online, only to be directed to a music video of British pop singer Rick Astley’s 1980s hit, Never Gonna Give You Up.

At least there was an element of humour in being pranked like that, but there’s nothing funny about receiving cold calls from telemarketers in this city, a scourge that sits well above being rickrolled in the global rankings of extreme irritants that make you want to strangle someone. I mean, what could be more infuriating than answering your phone while in the middle of something important, only to find some telemarketer on the other end of the line hawking products you’re least interested in.

It’s been a problem in Hong Kong for many years, but seems to be getting worse these days. I have a couple of apps on my phone to block nuisance calls, but the telemarketers bypass them with fiendish nonchalance.

Last week, while awaiting a call I could not afford to miss, I was ambushed by a saleswoman on the other end of the line and found myself swearing at her in utter frustration. She swore right back and hung up, leaving me to fleetingly contemplate murder.

But my personal experience pales next to that of a family whose allergy to telemarketers was shared online by a doctor. According to his Facebook post, a seriously injured car-accident victim required urgent surgery, but hospital staff seeking his wife’s consent had to make 18 calls to her before she picked up the phone. The caller ID number started with a “3”, leading her to believe it was the usual junk call that such prefixes have conditioned us to watch out for.

The incident has caused enough public concern to squeeze another commitment out of commerce minister Greg So Kam-leung to launch a public consultation on fixing the problem.

So, by the way, is the minister who has pretty much turned a deaf ear to the noise all these years, but was upset when the poor old privacy commissioner took the initiative to conduct a survey in 2014 that found nine out of 10 Hongkongers were bothered by unsolicited calls.

So complained that he had not been consulted, and questioned the validity of the study, although his own bureau a couple of years later found in a survey that 96 per cent of Hongkongers considered such calls a nuisance. And he still wants to “consult” the public first.

The fact is, Hong Kong already has a “do not call” register, and the millions of harassed citizens who have added their phone numbers to the list are protected by law from commercial electronic messages, including voice recordings. But person-to-person telemarketing calls are exempted.

And even if the register were to be expanded to cover cold calls, it would not filter out offshore callers. Having said that, it’s still made a difference in the US and Singapore, so why not here.

The government’s reluctance to take firm action stems from the prospect of an estimated 28,000 telemarketers losing their jobs. But at last count, 30 per cent of these jobs were outsourced to the mainland. The woman who swore back at me had a strong mainland accent, suggesting some office or shack across the border.

It’s a tough call, no doubt, but it’s hard to summon up any sympathy for people whose chosen profession centres on driving the rest of us nuts. The companies they work for should know that cold calls are no longer a cost-effective way of doing business.

I’m talking to you, lady with the potty mouth, and you, Mr Minister. Act now, or may the ghost of Rick Astley haunt you forever with the volume turned up to 11.

Yonden Lhatoo is the chief news editor at the Post

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How China’s belt and road can be a pathway to more equitable globalisation

CommentInsight & Opinion
Patrick Ho says the multi-nation strategy, with its focus on infrastructure and job creation in the real economy, can help an unequal and violence-racked world find a new paradigm of sustainable development

Human ingenuity, technological advancement and open markets have given us a world of increasing abundance. However, despite the impressive economic growth of recent decades, 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty. The pie has become bigger, but the top 10 per cent of earners have fared exceedingly well, while the bottom 10 per cent continue to fall further behind.

Those left behind, in desperation and hopelessness, and finding no recourse to address systemic unfairness within society, resort to extreme measures to make their voices heard. Ultimately, everyone is harmed by inequality. In Hong Kong, we witness a similar phenomenon, which sows the seeds of social discord and unrest.

For the past half a century, economic development through globalisation has been skewed towards the virtual economy and service industries, with credit spending and financial derivatives, astronomical national debts, an ever-widening income gap and wealth disparity, and all its inherent social woes. Our world is now desperately searching for a new paradigm of development that can return us to balanced economic development, where an asset-based physical and real economy (such as investing in infrastructure development) plays a central role.

Today, Globalisation 1.0 is a system in crisis. The world is in a dire need of Globalisation 2.0. China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative is an answer to this need. The strategy aims to promote connectivity by building new roads, railways, sea lanes, flight paths, water ducts, oil and gas pipelines, electricity grids and fibre optic cables, and regards infrastructure development as the basic building block of global connectivity and socio-economic growth.

The plan represents a new model of sustainable development for the world, or Globalisation 2.0, where social inclusiveness, equality, individual and social well-being, and environmental responsibility feature alongside economic growth and prosperity, with equal weight given to each.

In its formative stages, the belt and road plan will rely on major investments in infrastructure building, putting a call out to the entire world to start steering the global economy back to basics – real assets – and gradually away from virtual derivatives.The term “infrastructure” encompasses physical structures as well as institutions and human capabilities. Economic infrastructure includes transport, energy, communications and financial services systems. Social and environmental infrastructure includes water and sanitation, schools, hospitals and health care systems.

Whereas Globalisation 1.0 is only concerned with maximising profits, Globalisation 2.0 emphasises economic prosperity amid equality and environmental responsibility

Infrastructure is a driver of any economy, its backbone even. Its condition has a cascading impact on a nation’s economy, business productivity, GDP, employment, personal income and international competitiveness. Infrastructure does not only favour big enterprises, but also helps medium, small, and even individual enterprises to thrive and prosper. Such social empowerment creates opportunities, especially for individuals to lift themselves out of joblessness and poverty.

Furthermore, infrastructure is fundamental to sustainable development, playing a catalytic role in fostering social development and environmental protection, alongside economic growth.

Our world is experiencing profound and complex challenges, including the rise of radicalisation and violent extremism, against a backdrop of identity-based conflicts, cultural and religious tensions.

Countering these challenges calls for the use of a wide range of approaches to promote tolerance and reconciliation. Many resources and much effort has been devoted to combating terrorism in the past decade – with discouraging, if not dismal, results. Perhaps we have been addressing only the symptoms without attending to the root of the problem. It is high time to consider adopting an alternative approach.

The belt and road’s many infrastructure projects can create large numbers of jobs and generate economic activity, addressing the employment concerns of young people, while bringing peace, hope and stability to the troubled regions in the Middle East and North Africa, integrating them with the global economy through socio-economic reconstruction and helping to mitigate the social ills spawned by the rapidly growing wealth gap of Globalisation 1.0.

By the same token, belt and road projects, by creating jobs and alleviating local instability and hopelessness, might work like a dam to hold back the stream of refugees and immigrants clamouring to enter the European Union.

The belt and road strategy operates according to the geo-economic principle of “win-win” cooperation, and overcomes the zero-sum game of geopolitical confrontations that threaten to bring the world close to war.

It presents the world with a new model of growth. By incorporating sustainable development into today’s depressing global system, we can foster this new Globalisation 2.0 that embraces an inclusive, mutually beneficial, environmentally friendly and equitable platform of economic development, a system that works for all of mankind and leaves no one behind.

Dr Patrick Ho Chi-ping is deputy chairman and secretary general of the China Energy Fund Committee. This article is an abridged version of his recent speech at the China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations Forum 2017