China comes out of COVID-19 ‘laughing’


A journalist who was recently forced to flee China on the advice of the Australian government says the country has come out of COVID-19 "absolutely laughing".

Bill Birtles, who was the ABC's China correspondent in Beijing from 2015 until a few weeks ago, said it was a "parallel world" between what was being heard about COVID-19 there compared to elsewhere.

"It is almost unfathomably different," he told a Lowy Institute webinar discussion about Australia's fractured ties with China.

"Everybody has kind of moved on from the whole Wuhan stuff-up in China ... the coverage has been shaped ... to a narrative controlled by the party.

"On the ground, China has absolutely smashed COVID."

Mr Birtles said the government had almost eliminated domestic transmission among a population of 1.4 billion people, compared to countries like India, the US and Brazil, which was an "extraordinary achievement".


He said the US also gave China a "gift" with its terrible handling of the virus, which had been "absolutely exploited for all political gain domestically" in China through the state media.

"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."

Michael Smith, who was the Australian Financial Review's China correspondent based in Shanghai from 2018 until he too was forced out, described the pair's recent experience as being "pawns in a wider game".

"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 said his impression was it was a tit-for-tat diplomatic issue that didn't personally relate to them.

Originally published as China comes out of COVID-19 'laughing'

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