Culture Buff

The Truth About China by Bill Birtles

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

15 May 2021

9:00 AM

As news came through of China’s suspension of high-level trade dialogue with Australia, I read The Truth About China by Bill Birtles (Allen&Unwin). Birtles was ABC correspondent in China from 2015 until September 2020 when he was rushed out, having received refuge for five days in the Australian Embassy while diplomats negotiated his departure with an increasingly threatening Chinese government. He made it onto a flight to Sydney leaving no Australian correspondents on the ground for the first time in decades.

Bill Birtles has quite a story to tell and he does so with verve and clarity. He went to China first in 2008 around the period of the Beijing Olympics in what he now sees as the ‘good old days’, a period of optimism about China’s place in the world. In 2010, he landed a job with a new 24-hour English-language television channel CNC. With the grand title of ‘foreign expert’, he was really a language polisher, knocking off rough edges. His 2015 return to China for the ABC saw him in a very different country, one now dominated by President Xi Jinping and contentious issues including Huawei, the South China Sea, Hong Kong, coronavirus and deteriorating relations with Australia.

While never diminishing their seriousness, Birtles brings a certain Boys’ Own charm to describing his reporting of Hong Kong demonstrations and his ultimate enforced flight from China. It’s a good read.

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