Australian Student Critical of China Threatened with Expulsion, Prosecution

Australian Student Critical of China Threatened with Expulsion, Prosecution

Rachel Pannett – The Wall Street Journal – Wednesday 20 May 2020

SYDNEY—An Australian university is threatening to expel and take legal action against a student known for his criticism of Beijing, in a case that has renewed tensions over Chinese influence in higher education.

Drew Pavlou, a 20-year-old philosophy student at the University of Queensland, will face a disciplinary hearing Wednesday over allegations he violated university policy, harassed staff and students, and damaged the reputation of the university.

Mr. Pavlou, who will be defended at the hearing by a top Australian free-speech advocate, has drawn the university’s ire over his campus activities and online posts, some of which have mocked and ridiculed China. His lawyer declined to comment on the case while it was under way.

Mr. Pavlou has become a lightning rod in a larger debate about Chinese influence in Australia, including in higher education. Australian universities have become increasingly reliant on revenue from foreign students, many of whom are Chinese. Critics say that reliance has made them especially vulnerable to China’s attempts at soft-power influence, as administrators seek to curry favor with Beijing and attract Chinese students.

“I think that the top levels of the university [of Queensland] have essentially been groomed by Chinese Communist Party agents over the years and they have come to believe that their first objective is to keep Beijing happy. They’ve forgotten what a Western university should stand for,” said Clive Hamilton, a professor at Charles Sturt University in Canberra and author of the book “Silent Invasion” about the influence of the Chinese Communist Party in Australia. “The level of contact between the two is at a minimum unseemly, and really quite improper,” he said.

University officials deny they are being intellectually compromised by political pressure from China. At the center of the debate are 13 Confucius Institutes at Australian universities. The institutes receive funding from the Chinese government, with the stated mission of promoting the Chinese language. Their operations are under scrutiny as part of an Australian government review being carried out by the attorney-general’s department into whether the institutes require registration as a source of foreign influence.

Many universities in the U.S. have closed their Confucius Institutes amid allegations of censorship and U.S. government scrutiny over their activities.

Peter Varghese, the University of Queensland chancellor and a former top Australian diplomat, says Confucius Institutes have been cast as a “Chinese Trojan horse.” In an opinion column last year, he wrote that: “Australia has to come to grips with China’s emergence as a leading economy and a research powerhouse. Our political systems and values are very different. But boycotting China is not a sensible option.”

The University of Queensland signed a new five-year agreement with its Confucius Institute in December stipulating that it doesn’t offer any credit-bearing courses toward academic degrees, and that all personnel are subject to Australian laws.

Among the claims made by university officials against Mr. Pavlou in a confidential 186-page document, viewed by The Wall Street Journal, are that he damaged the university’s reputation when he posed in a hazmat suit outside the college’s Confucius Institute in mid-March and later posted a photo on Facebook calling the institute a “biohazard risk.” He has also criticized China’s treatment of ethnic Uighurs. The university said it received a staff complaint about his activities and that his conduct and online behavior “might reasonably be perceived as discrimination, harassment or bullying.”

The university’s lawyers last week threatened to prosecute him for contempt of court. Mr. Pavlou had subpoenaed internal university documents as part of a separate case he is taking against China’s top government official in Queensland state. In the Australian legal system the documents aren’t public and the university’s lawyers accused him of using internal emails to support his disciplinary hearing.

“This is just absolutely extraordinary for an Australian public university to be threatening a student critic of China with imprisonment,” said Mr. Pavlou in an interview. “I think they’re trying to threaten me into submission.”

In his own legal challenge, Mr. Pavlou is seeking a restraining order against China’s consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, alleging that he incited death threats against him by accusing students who participated in a Hong Kong pro-democracy protest on the campus on July 24 last year of being “anti-China activists.” Mr. Pavlou said he was assaulted by pro-China supporters at the event.

The consulate and the Chinese Embassy in Canberra didn’t respond to requests for comment.

The university declined to comment on Mr. Pavlou. In a May 9 statement on its website, the university said it “rejects recent unsubstantiated accusations about any political motivations” behind the disciplinary hearing.

“Disciplinary processes do not seek to prevent staff or students from expressing their personal views or to limit their right to freedom of speech,” the statement said. “The University is an active defender of freedom of speech.”

Australia and other Western nations risk losing hundreds of millions of dollars in Chinese tuition fees and research funding if they reduce their exposure to China—a risk that was exposed by the coronavirus outbreak. Universities Australia, an industry body, estimates the sector may lose up to $3 billion in 2020 revenue after coronavirus travel bans prevented thousands of students from starting the fall semester.

The University of Queensland has the fifth-highest international-student fee income in Australia, according to the university. About 18,000 of its 53,000 students are from overseas, half of them from China. In 2018, foreign students, who pay higher tuition fees, contributed nearly $400 million in fees, more than the university received from Australian undergraduate students.

The university raised eyebrows in Canberra among academics and China skeptics when it appointed Mr. Xu, the Chinese consul-general, as an adjunct professor, an unlikely role for a serving foreign government official. The University of Queensland has rejected suggestions that its links with China have compromised its academic freedom.

In a speech last Tuesday, James Paterson, a conservative senator, said a whistleblower from the university had given him a copy of last year’s senior staff remuneration report, which showed Prof. Peter Høj, the school’s vice chancellor and president, had received a roughly $130,000 bonus based partly on his success in growing the university’s relationship with China. Before the coronavirus outbreak, the university had expected more than 60% of foreign students to come from China in the fall semester.

“Far from an achievement warranting a bonus paid from student fees and taxpayers dollars, the prospect of 63% of the university’s foreign students coming from only one country should have been an alarm bell,” Mr. Paterson told Parliament. Mr. Paterson is one of two government lawmakers whose study trip to China was canceled late last year amid simmering tensions between Canberra and Beijing.

Mr. Varghese, the university’s chancellor, accused the senator of quoting selectively from remuneration documents “to unfairly attack Professor Høj’s character under the cloak of Parliamentary privilege.” He said only one of the vice-chancellor’s performance goals related to the university’s research relationship with China and the recruitment of Chinese students.

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