Comment that drew shocked laughter
Minister of the Chinese Embassy in Australia, Wang Xining, has denied China has been involved in a "cover up" of the extent of coronavirus and defended brutal tactics being used to control the disease, saying they were possible in Australia too.
China has locked down tens of millions of people and huge parts of the country in a bid to contain the COVID-19 disease that has infected 79,000 and spread to South Korea, Italy and Iran, among other countries.
In a wide-ranging discussion on Q&A, Wang was asked about the suppression of information in China, whether it had mishandled the coronavirus outbreak and if there had been a cover-up.
But it was a comment where Wang called centres where one million Uighurs are locked up "training centres" drew shocked laughter from the audience.
The centres have been labelled as concentration camps by critics.
Speaking about the spread of coronavirus, Wang denied there was a cover up by China.
"I don't think there is a cover-up," Wang said. "It is a very sophisticated issue. It involved a lot of agencies and expertise. It takes time to make precise judgments on how to deal with."
He went on to explain that China sees itself not as a "party state" but actually as a "socialist democracy".
"A simple comparison between Australian democracy and the Chinese democracy will be like this - you have a 'voting' democracy, we have a 'working' democracy," he said.
"Efficiency is our top concern."
Q&A host Hamish Macdonald noted that democracy involved voting but Wang countered, saying people did vote for members of the National People's Congress.
Asked about the system, journalist and researcher Vicky Xu said there were democracies written into China's constitution but whether they were practically carried out was another issue.
Journalist Stan Grant, who spent 10 years in China, described working for CNN and said Wang, who is now the deputy head of mission at the Chinese Embassy in Australia, was "in charge of me" at the time.
Grant said when CNN did a story the Chinese did not want people to watch, the screen would go black.
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"So information was blocked from people. People that we would interview would often disappear. Would be put under house arrest … we were detained on numerous occasions. Sometimes … violently and physically detained."
But Wang said "I don't agree".
"We think sometimes the Western media failed to give out the information, picked out a piece of a large jigsaw to portray China as a very autocratic country. If you go into the street, talk to the people, you'll find for example, 85 per cent of the people agreed with what the government is doing.
"They think China is moving in the right direction. And there are 90 million Communist Party members. Each year there are two million more joining the party. If you think they are idiots, that's an insult."
Wang said he did not think anywhere in the world allowed freedom of speech.
"I don't think child pornography or pro-terrorist information would be allowed in Australia or anywhere in the world," he said.
ARE THESE MEASURES APPROPRIATE?
Wang was also shown footage aired earlier on Four Corners of people being dragged from their homes amid the COVID-19 outbreak that has spread around the world. Some of them screamed as they were being carried and pushed into vans, and forced into quarantine.
"Are these sorts of measures appropriate, proportionate?," Macdonald asked.
"Well, we need to make 100 per cent effort to achieve 0 per cent possibility of further outbreak to prevent any possibility of human-to-human transmission," Wang responded.
"Some people are not very willing to co-operate."
Macdonald pressed further asking, "Are these tactics appropriate?"
"You mean, dragging people out? If they're confirmed, they are the host," Wang answered.
"Think of their neighbours. And think of now millions of people are staying home.
"Most of the Chinese people are good people. They're willing to sacrifice their immediate pleasure and personal income for the greater good. If we let these people out - and there are several cases recently of not communal outbreak, but people-to-people transmission - those people who were infected, what do you say to that?"
Macdonald asked Kirby Institute head of global biosecurity Raina MacIntyre, who has praised China's response to coronavirus, about what she thought about footage.
MacIntyre said it wasn't a comment on the videos specifically but said "just to be the devil's advocate", Australia's laws also allowed it to forcibly isolate someone if they posed a risk to the communities around them.
"It has been used very infrequently but it has been used in Australia to essentially isolate people who are infectious with diseases such as TB," she said.
"These kinds of legislation basically look at the public good versus individual rights. And in some instances the public good is greater than individual rights."
MacIntyre also backed Australia's measures including its travel ban on travellers from China, which Wang has criticised as a "wave of panic, over-reaction and racism", and said they were a standard public health measure.
"Quarantine and travel restrictions that have been used throughout history," she said. "They do work."
A really remarkable #qanda tonight - congratulations.— Peter Cronau (@PeterCronau) February 24, 2020
The first step to peace is communication, rather than confrontation. We need more talking, challenging, listening, persuading on #China. Well done.
On #qanda, Qs I never thought I would hear asked and As I never thought I would hear.— Greg Baum (@GregBaum) February 24, 2020
Whatever your views on China and the Community Party, this level of engagement and debate by Wang Xining is to be welcomed, it's very important and has the potential to add so much to our understanding of China in Australia #QandA— Nadia Daly (@nadiasdaly) February 24, 2020
WILL YOU RELEASE OUR FAMILY MEMBERS?
Two men who have been separated from their wives and children also appeared to ask why the Chinese government had locked up one million Uighurs and whether they would release their family members.
"My son is an Australian citizen and holding an Australian passport and I've never met him," Sadam Abdusalam.
He said his three-year-old son and his wife Nadila Wumaier were under house arrest. His friend Almas Nizamidin had not heard from his wife in three years.
"The Australian government have given my wife a visa so they can come and join me in Australia. But the Chinese government won't let them leave," Abdusalam said.
"Why have the Communist Party locked up one million Uighurs? Will you release our family members?"
Macdonald asked Wang why Abdusalam couldn't see his son.
But Wang said it was "another piece out of a big jigsaw" before saying that Abdusalam was not Uighur and that China also didn't recognise dual citizenship.
Wang said the girl had also told the government she did not want to come to Australia.
McDonald asked whether Wang would let him travel to Xinjiang to see the camps, which Wang insisted were actually "training centres" - drawing laughter from the Q&A audience.
But Wang turned to Grant and said he had been to Xinjiang a couple of times with CNN.
"We were often detained," Grant said. "We were often physically assaulted while trying to get to speak to people in many parts of China. As well you know from our time together."
"It's always taking a piece out of a jigsaw and portraying China as something very bad," Wang responded.
Xu asked Wang if he was seriously suggesting Sadam's wife and child didn't want to come to Australia.
"I mean that," Wang said.
"There's a lot of fake news running around," Wang said.
"You're accusing ABC of fake news right now and you're on their show. Do you understand the irony?"
Wang said since he had arrived in Canberra, a small number of people in Australia were trying to preach xenophobia and giving a misportrayal of China.
"Either out of their politically motivated, out of their selfish personal aspiration or they are supported by some foreign forces. You could seek evidence."
When asked what foreign forces he was referring to, he said: "The United States".
Xu noted that Foreign Minister Marise Payne had personally raised the issue about the Uighurs, and those being detained in camps. "Are you saying that Foreign Minister Marise Payne is a stooge of the US?"
"She was misinformed," Wang said.
"Her views are sometimes on the Western media's portrayal about the issue. It's a training centre. People get to be prepared for future jobs."
When asked whether people in the "training centres" were there voluntarily, Wang said most of the trainees had committed minor offences, not to the degree of criminal persecution.
He said "many" of them were there voluntarily.
"Because that region was contaminated by terrorist and radical ideas."