Australian journalist reveals how China is bragging to its people about its handling of COVID-19 – despite much of the world blaming them for the virus
- ABC and AFR reporters Bill Birtles and Michael Smith were pulled out of China
- They arrived in Australia earlier this month after government feared for safety
- Mr Birtles said COVID-19 had been a huge win for China and its government
- China has almost eliminated community transmission of the deadly coronavirus
Bill Birtles had worked in Beijing since 2015 as the ABC’s China correspondent before he was rushed back home on September 8 following the advice of the Australian government.
Michael Smith, the Australian Financial Review’s China correspondent, returned home at the same time alongside Mr Birtles.
Speaking in a webinar for the Lowy Institute on Friday, Mr Birtles said the global pandemic had been a ‘massive win’ for Chinese President Xi Jinping and the communist party.
Despite much of the blame for the virus being put on China, the country has almost eliminated domestic transmission among its 1.4 billion people – something Mr Birtles called an ‘extraordinary achievement’.
Australian journalists Bill Birtles (left) and Michael Smith (right) were both brought home from China earlier this month after the Australian government held fears for their safety
Mr Birtles who worked as the ABC’s China correspondent in Beijing since 2015 said COVID-19 had been a ‘massive win’ for the Chinese government
‘The COVID situation has been a massive win for China. It’s like a parallel world between what you hear about COVID in China and what you hear about it outside of China,’ he said.
‘It is almost unfathomably different so everybody has kind of moved on from the whole Wuhan stuff-up in China because the coverage’s been shaped… and funneled towards the narrative controlled by the party.
‘On the ground, China has absolutely smashed COVID.’
Mr Birtles said the Chinese Communist Party now had the ‘tools of a surveillance state to snuff out any opposition’ placing the party in its strongest position ever.
‘People who kind of say “maybe this is China’s Chernobyl” or something, they really underestimate the many levers of political control, and media control, and information control that the party now has,’ he said.
‘I can’t imagine a stronger position for the party to be in, except of course for the US trade war.
‘But certainly on COVID, they’ve come out of it absolutely laughing.’
Mr Smith who was also brought home from China said in the webinar he felt they had been treated as ‘pawns’ in broader tensions between the two countries.
Michael Smith from the AFR holds his thumbs up upon his return to Sydney on September 8. He and Mr Birtles were questioned by Chinese authorities before they could return to Australia
China has almost eliminated community transmission of coronavirus (pictured Hong Kong on Friday)
‘I’m quite disappointed to leave the way we did. It just feels like a real shame for journalism,’ he said.
‘It’s obviously going to be hard to get back in there for a while.’
Mr Birtles and Mr Smith’s return from communist country came after the detention of Australian journalist, Cheng Lei, who Foreign Minister Marise Payne confirmed was being detained by Chinese authorities in late August.
Both Mr Birtles and Mr Smith were told they were persons of interest into an investigation into Ms Lei and were told they could only leave China after submitting to a one-hour long interview, the AFR reported.
The pair eventually flew back to Australia following intense questioning by China’s Ministry of State security, the ABC reported.
Mr Birtles was first warned to leave China by Australian diplomats and had booked flights ready to leave.
Michael Smith (pictured) the China correspondent for the Australian Financial Review returned to Sydney from China earlier this month
Bill Birtles for the ABC was questioned by Chinese authorities and told he was banned from leaving the country before arriving in Sydney on September 8
But after throwing farewell drinks in his apartment on the night before he was due to depart, seven police officers showed up at Mr Birtles’ home and told him he was banned from leaving China.
The officers said he would be contacted the next day and would be questioned over a ‘national security case’.
He then spent the next four days staying in the Australian Embassy in Beijing as Chinese officials demanded an interview.
Mr Birtles refused to speak to them but finally agreed to be interviewed so his travel ban could be lifted.
The following morning he flew from Beijing to Shanghai and then back to Sydney.
Mr Smith had also been questioned by Chinese officials who arrived at his home around midnight earlier this month.
He then sought refuge at the Australian consulate in Shanghai before returning to Sydney.
At the end of last month the Australian Government confirmed journalist Cheng Lei (pictured) was being detained in China. She is a high profile anchor for CGTN, China’s English language state broadcaster
‘It’s great to be back home safely after a difficult five days,’ Mr Smith said upon his arrival in Sydney.
‘The late night visit by police at my home was intimidating and unnecessary and highlights the pressure all foreign journalists are under in China right now.’
The departure of Mr Birtles and Mr Smith means there are currently no accredited Australian journalists in China.
It comes after it was revealed Ms Lei, who has two children in Melbourne had been detained in China since August 14.
It is not known why Ms Lei, who is a high profile anchor for state broadcaster CGTN in Beijing, is being detained.