How a 20 year old put the spotlight on Australian universities’ cosy relationship with China

How a 20 year old put the spotlight on Australian universities’ cosy relationship with China

Ben Smee – The Guardian – Sunday 24 May 2020

On Thursday morning Drew Pavlou, a 20-year-old activist from Brisbane, sent an “urgent” email to the vice-chancellor of the University of Queensland, Peter Høj.

Attached was a two-second video of Pavlou, a student representative on the UQ senate, blowing the VC a raspberry.

The inflammatory bit of theatre explains a lot about Pavlou, who was last week described as “the most famous undergraduate student in the world”.

Pavlou faces expulsion from the university in relation to his provocative activism, which is focused on the Chinese government, its human rights record and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.

The sandstone institution’s reaction to his undergraduate stunts has only served to intensify scrutiny – and bring international attention – to the university’s links in China.

Pavlou has been labelled a “separatist” by a Chinese diplomat and an “anti-China rioter” by state media outlet the Global Times; lauded by free speech advocates and written about by the Wall Street Journalthe Washington Post and Foreign Affairs.

“My friends often say ‘you’ve shitposted your way to international incidents’,” Pavlou says.

“I love satire. I had a sort of satirical thing going on. It’s like they can’t handle it or don’t recognise it.

“I’m a 20-year-old. Why does Peter Høj even care about me? Why does the university even care about me? I don’t understand why they are scared of someone like me.”

In April, the university tabled a 186-page brief of allegations against Pavlou, including that he “prejudiced the reputation of the university” by criticising and mocking its relationship with China.

Guardian Australia has reviewed a summary of the “misconduct” charges, which include claims his conduct was discriminatory, bullying and abusive.

Most of the allegations relate to clearly satirical stunts and his anti-Beijing activism: posing outside the vice-chancellor’s office wearing a Hazmat suit, or promoting a fake Confucius Institute panel discussion about “why Uyghurs must be exterminated”.

UQ has now hired two separate top-tier law firms to engage with Pavlou. One is acting as a de facto prosecutor in the disciplinary case. The other threatened the student with contempt of court proceedings this week for attempting to cite documents in his defence that had been obtained under subpoena in a separate legal matter.

On Wednesday, Pavlou stormed out of a disciplinary hearing decrying it as a “kangaroo court”. No verdict has been handed down but the student told Guardian Australia he is already preparing a supreme court of Queensland appeal, with the high-profile free speech advocate, barrister Tony Morris QC, in tow.

On 24 June last year, a Hong Kong democracy protest at the university was crashed by a pro-Beijing group, many of whom could not be identified as enrolled students.

Video of the incident shows Pavlou involved in an altercation, after first being set upon by the counter-protesters. He is knocked to the ground. The police are called.

The aftermath of that event largely set in motion what followed: an increased focus on the university’s relationship with China, and Pavlou escalating his activism.

Emails released by the university this week show on the evening of the brawl, a deputy vice-chancellor sent a message to the Chinese consulate in Brisbane to explain how it had handled the situation.

Two days later the Chinese consul-general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, released his own statement praising the “spontaneous patriotic behaviour” of the pro-China members of the crowd, and effectively, Pavlou claims, accusing him of “anti-China separatist activities – a capital crime in China”.

Recently prior to the incident, the university had made Xu an adjunct professor, but issued no public announcement.

“Have a think about the contrast,” Pavlou says. “[The vice-chancellor] has allowed this guy to remain at the university, after applauding violence on campus.

“But it’s apparently me who has put their reputation at risk.”

Pavlou subsequently sought a court order, similar to a restraining order, against Xu, who he claims endangered him. That case is ongoing.

The University of Queensland, one of the prestigious “group of eight” institutions, has arguably the strongest ties to China of any in Australia. Before the coronavirus pandemic about 40% of its international cohort – about 7,000 students in total – were from mainland China.

Høj was, until recently, a consultant to Beijing’s global Confucius Institute headquarters – known as Hanban – and a member of its governing council, which is responsible for more than 500 institutes operating in universities and schools across the world.

UQ’s Confucius Institute was one of several to renegotiate its contract with Hanban, amid foreign influence concerns. The ABC has revealed the Chinese government has co-funded at least four courses at UQ.

Last month under parliamentary privilege, the Liberal senator James Paterson revealed Høj had received a $200,000 bonus based partly on success in growing the university’s relationship with China.

The university’s chancellor, Peter Varghese, told Guardian Australia the university had always been open about its links to China.

“[The university’s relationship with China] is completely above board,” Varghese says. “I don’t think there is anything the university is doing vis-a-vis China that in any way conflicts with the core values of universities.

“This sort of shock and horror that there are a large number of Chinese students in Australia I find rather curious.

“The important thing for Australian universities is that they remain true to their foundational values as a university; those include academic freedom, freedom of speech, rights to peaceful protest.

“At the end of the day, students who come to Australia to study are coming to a liberal democracy to study in. I don’t see any evidence that discussion of human rights issues vis-a-vis China is somehow silenced or sort of muted in Australian campuses.”

A spokeswoman for the university says disciplinary matters were initiated in response to complaints, and were guided by the UQ’s processes and values.

“The claim that an ongoing student disciplinary matter is politically or financially motivated is simply not true.

“We have a responsibility to ensure that all students and staff feel that they are able to express their opinions – not just those with the loudest voices. Holding different opinions is part of everyday life at university – that’s what we must continue to protect and stand for.

“What is important to recognise is that ‘free speech’ does not absolve us from our responsibilities to ensure other members of our community, including vulnerable people, are not intimidated or vilified.

“The university takes our duty of care to students and staff seriously. Our values are not ‘sport’, they are not ‘satire’ and we can’t ignore them if that is more convenient. They define who we are and what we stand for.”

Pavlou identifies with the political left, though many of his growing band of supporters are libertarian and conservative.

When praised by Pauline Hanson, Pavlou welcomed her support and suggested the One Nation senator back it up by “fighting to protect the human rights of all Muslim refugees imprisoned and tortured by our government in Australia”. He didn’t get a response.

“I’m not easy with people using me and my activism as a stick to beat China with,” Pavlou says. “I am uneasy when people refer to me as ‘anti-China’, I fundamentally reject anti-Chinese racism.”

He is almost shy, polite and soft-spoken in person; a contrast to some of his more inflammatory social media posts and other stunts.

In October 2019 he posted a shirtless photo of himself challenging Høj to wrestle naked in the great court. When the university announced at the outset of the coronavirus pandemic it would sell cheap care packages to students in need, Pavlou began a competing fundraiser to donate essential supplies for free.

He gives his $50,000 stipend as a university senator to charity.

Pavlou says the complaints against him have long moved beyond a matter of whether he will be expelled; what remains at stake is how much damage will be done to the university’s reputation in the process.

On Thursday, after sending Høj the raspberry, Pavlou followed up with another email. In it he explained the “Streisand effect”, where the attempt to suppress information only serves to garner further publicity.

“It’s a suicidal path,” Pavlou says. “They’ve tried to expel me but in the process completely drawn attention to the extent of the university’s relationship with China.”

Does he want to be expelled now, to drag the process out?

“The way I would word it is I’m trying to do them slowly, like Paul Keating said.

“There’s got to be a bit of sport in this for everyone.”

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