An Australian student denounced his university's ties to China. Then he became a target

Drew Pavlou's fight against the University of Queensland has highlighted China's influence on the Australian campus. (Patrick Hamilton / AFP / Getty Images)
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In front of the text messages threatening to kill his family, Drew Pavlou gathered a small group of students on a busy sidewalk at the University of Queensland to protest the Chinese government's suppression of Uyghur Muslims and crackdown on Hong Kong.
"Hey-hey, ho-ho - Xi Jinping has to go!"
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When he denounced the communist leader, hundreds of counter-demonstrators gathered around a colonnade on campus in Brisbane, Australia. Some were students from China; others seemed older. They shouted pro-Beijing slogans and played the Chinese national anthem over loudspeakers.
20-year-old Pavlou paused for a moment, smiling and delighted with the first protest he had ever organized.
Things quickly got violent. A man in the crowd stormed up to Pavlou and grabbed his megaphone. A second man pushed him. In the brawls that followed, a Hong Kong student was grabbed and necked. Another had ripped open her shirt.
The next day, Chinese state media named Pavlou as leader of the protest, and Xu Jie, Beijing's consul general in Brisbane, praised the "spontaneous patriotic behavior" of those who attacked Pavlou.
It was an unusual statement for a diplomat, especially given Xu's other position: an associate professor at the University's School of Languages ​​and Cultures. Its dual role was an example of the ever closer relationship between Australian universities and China, their greatest source of international students.
The university did not punish Xu for promoting violence. Instead, it defended its relationship with Beijing - and involved one of its brightest students.
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Pavlou's protest in July 2019 and its tumultuous aftermath showed how China's economic power had affected Australia and even what was said and taught at leading research universities.
At a time of dueling superpowers, Australia's position is particularly vexing: closely tied to the US but economically dependent on China, which purchases more than a third of its exports, including large quantities of iron ore and coal. In recent years, China has also seen a boom in Australian universities, turning international education into a $ 30 billion industry.
According to a 2019 study by sociologist Salvatore Babones, tuition fees for Chinese students now account for a fifth of the revenues of some top schools. At the University of Queensland, a green, sandstone-style campus in Australia's third largest city, one in seven students, and about $ 200 million in fees annually comes from China.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and then Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed a free trade agreement in Canberra in 2014. (Rick Rycroft / Associated Press)
The administrators extolled the research benefits and participated in a growing global reputation. In 2017, during Pavlou's freshman year, incidents involving Chinese students at multiple universities revealed how Australian commitments to free speech and liberal democratic principles conflicted with Beijing's desire for total control and its disdain for dissent.
A lecturer apologized for using teaching materials that listed Taiwan, which China considers part of its territory, as a country. Another was suspended after students protested a test quoting a Chinese saying that government officials would only tell the truth if "they are drunk or careless".
The outrage over such cases appeared to be orchestrated or supported by Chinese diplomats. Campus groups known as Chinese Students and Scholars Assns. - overseen by the Communist Party and often funded by Chinese embassies and consulates - monitoring the activities of Chinese students and mobilizing for nationalist purposes, according to human rights groups.
"Universities keep saying that they defend freedom of speech and believe in academic freedom, but in practice they are not working to protect the institution, student or staff from this very specific type of threat posed by authoritarian governments" said Elaine Pearson, Australia director at Human Rights Watch. "They are so dependent on fee-paying students that it affects the way they respond."
During the 2019 riots in Hong Kong, pro-Beijing groups at several Australian universities tore down Lennon Walls with colorful sticky notes that were erected in solidarity with democracy protesters. Hong Kong students at the Australian National University in Canberra, the capital, began covering their faces at rallies, fearful of being photographed and reported to the Chinese embassy.
Hong Kong democracy movement supporters wearing masks to hide their identities erected a makeshift Lennon Wall at the University of Queensland in August 2019.
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Wu Lebao, a China-born activist who was granted asylum in Australia and is a student at ANU, said students from China had armed campus anti-discrimination policies by reflexively calling any criticism of Beijing racist, which administrators often panic displaced.
"They use Australia's openness against it," said Wu.
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That summer, Pavlou reached out to the directors of the University of Queensland Student Union in Hong Kong and offered to help host a sit-in.
Pavlou, the grandson of Greek Cypriot immigrants, was an academic star - he had twice made the list of deans and won a poetry award while completing a triple major in philosophy, history and English literature. He had a depressed history and could be aggressive, but gradually found his political voice as a Social Democrat, influenced by Bernie Sanders and the teachings of his Catholic high school.
When he read about Beijing's mass imprisonment of the Uighur minority, he was disgusted by Australia's reaction.
University of Queensland students create signs and sticky notes in support of democracy protesters in Hong Kong in August 2019. (Patrick Hamilton / AFP / Getty Images)
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"Nobody on the Australian left has spoken about it," he said. "On the right, the Mining Titans said," The trade is so important that we can't plug it. "Everyone played politics while innocent people suffered. That our largest trading partner had 1 million Muslims in camps - how is that not a national news every day?"
Pavlou was built like an upside-down broom with a wall of gelled hair on a slender frame. He hardly looked like he wanted a fight. On July 24th he showed up for the rally half an hour late. He was attacked three times, once by a man who hit him in the back of the head until police dispersed the crowd.
Pavlou wondered if the consulate had mobilized the opposition, especially after a pro-Beijing leader made it clear that some of his group were not students. Some had their faces hidden behind masks.
Pro-Beijing students gathered at the University of Queensland on July 24, 2019. (Drew Pavlou)
Hours after the protest, the university said it supported "open, respectful and legitimate freedom of speech, including debating ideas we may not all support or disagree with".
Pavlou expected a tougher condemnation of the violence and an investigation into his attackers. The university did not respond even after the Australian Foreign Minister reprimanded Chinese Consul General Xu for promoting "disruptive or potentially violent behavior". Campus administrators declined an interview request, and Xu did not respond to messages.
Soon after Xu's testimony, Chinese nationalists began to flood Pavlou's social media accounts with bile:
One of several threats to Pavlou. (Drew Pavlou)
China cannot provoke your country.
White garbage pig.
I'm going to hire a killer through the deep web and then kill your family.
Your mother is raped to the point of death.
The threats alerted his parents, a quiet couple who ran a grocery store in Brisbane and avoided politics. When Pavlou phoned another protest the following week, they yelled at him to stop. Soon the family hardly spoke to him anymore. His teenage brother and sister accused him of putting them all in danger.
His main target was Peter Høj, the university's vice chancellor and its leading proponent of engagement with China. Høj was a member of the governing council of the Chinese state agency that oversaw the global cultural centers known as the Confucius Institutes, including one at the University of Queensland. In 2015 he was named “Outstanding Person of the Year” by the institutes at a ceremony in Shanghai.
The institutes, which are partially funded by China and offer language and other classes according to a curriculum approved by the Communist Party, were recently classified as a propaganda operation by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Dozens of US locations have closed. At the University of Queensland, a Confucius-designed economics course supported Beijing's speeches on Uyghurs, including that "the majority claimed to be affiliated with extremist groups overseas".
Late last year, the university renewed its agreement with the Confucius Institute until 2024, though it added a provision strengthening its control over the curriculum. The deal turned out to be lucrative for Høj, who received a $ 148,000 bonus for meeting his performance goals, one of which was to deepen ties with China.
Peter Høj, left, then Vice Chancellor of the University of Queensland, shakes hands with Xu Jie, the Chinese Consul General in Brisbane, in 2017. (Chinese Consulate General, Brisbane)
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Pavlou tweeted that Høj was "deeply compromised" by the relationship: "So he doesn't care that students are beaten up by masked CCP thugs on his campus."
Høj, who retired in June, declined to be interviewed. A Queensland State Anti-Corruption Commission found no evidence that year that he had acted improperly.
Pavlou has made himself a left-wing provocateur who pushes his cause with memes and stunts and passionately condemns genocide in the next. Last October, he ran for a student place in the university senate, of which Høj was a member. He promised to donate the $ 37,000 salary to human rights organizations - and he won.
Start of Chinese language studies in the next semester at UQ. I look forward to my friends and me giving the instructor at the Confucius Institute a nervous breakdown
- Drew Pavlou @ 乐 @ (@DrewPavlou) January 5, 2020
His new position did not prevent him from sparing someone who was not in step with his opposition to the Communist Party. In a Facebook post, he lit a book with Xi Jinping's speeches in front of the Chinese consulate in Sydney. When he was about to start teaching Chinese, he joked about "causing the instructor at the Confucius Institute to have a nervous breakdown".
Administrators watched with growing dismay.
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On April 9, Pavlou opened his email to find a 186-page university document entitled "Disciplinary Matters." It contained eleven allegations of wrongdoing, ranging from grave allegations - harassment and bullying of students and staff who damage the university's reputation - to frivolous allegations, such as using a pen in a campus business without pay.
That night, faced with a possible eviction, he drove to a parking lot and cried in his car.
The dossier was a detailed chronicle of Pavlou's social media behavior. Some of it was ugly. Weeks after the COVID-19 pandemic, he had put on an orange protective suit in front of the Confucius Institute and said he was locking it up, "UNTIL BIOHAZARD RISK" - a "prank" that he later regretted.
As the student representative, it is my job to keep the students safe. That is why I have put the UQ CONFUCIUS INSTITUT under a complete and complete block until there is a risk of biological risk.
Posted by Drew Pavlou on Saturday 14th Mar 2020
Friends defended Pavlou, especially Hong Kong students, despite feared reprisals from the Chinese government.
"Drew is impulsive and irrational at times, as if he hadn't really thought about the consequences before acting or saying anything," said Jack Yiu, a 23-year-old graduate student. "But his beliefs are in the right place."
Pavlou admitted making the statements but argued that the university was punishing him for his activism. The anxiety and depression that had haunted him since childhood reappeared. He increased his medication and decided to fight back, fueled by growing public support, volunteer lawyers, and a plethora of revelations that put pressure on the university.
The Australian Strategic Policy Institute think tank announced that a former professor who returned to China had started a company specializing in surveillance technology. The news raised questions about whether Australian research funding had helped Beijing monitor Uyghurs or other groups. The university said it "will not condone any abuse of its research," but did not comment on the details of the report.
In a move aimed at appeasing critics, university officials said they would stop appointing foreign officials to honorary positions. But they allowed Chinese diplomat Xu to keep his unpaid professorship until it expires in 2021. (That year, a judge in Brisbane dismissed a case filed by Pavlou for inciting violence against Xu, ruling that he was protected by diplomatic immunity.)
"Drew's methods may have been provocative, but he's brave and has put a number of questions to serious scrutiny," said Pearson of Human Rights Watch. "Rather than directing its energies to throwing him out, the university should have focused on addressing the Chinese government's interference on their campus."
The administrators hired a senior law firm, Minter Ellison, to act as the prosecutor in Pavlou's disciplinary proceedings. Another firm she hired, Clayton Utz, threatened Pavlou with contempt for the trial for attempting to use it in his defense documents cited in a separate case.
"Hire two international law firms, put this dossier together - it was horrific how they could do that to a 20-year-old student with mental health problems," said Patrick Jory, a history professor who taught Pavlou. "I was just disgusted at how these powerful older men fell victim to this child."
On May 29, the Disciplinary Commission granted Pavlou a two-year ban. The verdict even took University Chancellor Peter Varghese, a former Australian diplomat, by surprise, who voiced concerns about the "severity of the sentence."
Six weeks later, an appeal committee threw back some of the most serious allegations and reduced Pavlou's suspension to one semester.
Pavlou didn't celebrate. The weight of the punishment, a year before graduation, broke his bravery.
"All of these people are signing a petition, all of these politicians are standing up," he said in a Facebook video, holding back tears. "But only - nothing changes."
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If you make China the enemy, China will be the enemy.
A Chinese official
However, things changed. While Pavlou was serving his suspension, the Chinese government hastened a trade and diplomatic war that has underscored the risk of turning Australia's economy into an authoritarian system.
Unlike their peers in academia, Australian political leaders often pushed back against Beijing. Australia was the first country to ban Chinese tech giant Huawei from its 5G networks and has criticized Beijing's policies in the South China Sea, Taiwan, Hong Kong and Xinjiang. After intelligence agencies found that pro-Beijing donors were channeling funds to Australian politicians, the government passed laws to prevent espionage and foreign interference.
The last straw for China seemed to come in April when Prime Minister Scott Morrison's government led calls for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. A Communist Party propagandist said Australia must be put in its place - like scraping chewing gum off the bottom of a shoe.
Beijing has since blocked billions of dollars in Australian wine, barley and other exports, refused calls from Australian ministers, expelled Australian journalists and issued travel warnings for students and tourists to Australia.
China increased import taxes on Australian wine and escalated a trade war after Canberra requested an investigation into the origin of the coronavirus. (Mark Schiefelbein / Associated Press)
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"If you make China the enemy," a Chinese official warned the Australian news media, "China will be the enemy."
"It's hard to know if we've hit the bottom because when it feels like that, a few more trapdoors open and everyone leaps in," said Richard McGregor, senior fellow at the Independent Lowy Institute.
The spit shattered the idea that Australia could balance its economic partnership with China and its alliance with the US - and signaled Beijing's other trading partners that political disagreements will cost.
"China doesn't want you to have it both ways," said McGregor.
Although prominent business leaders continue to argue that trade ties must be saved, public opinion is moving in the other direction. A survey by the Lowy Institute earlier this year found that only 23% of Australians trusted China, up from 52% in 2018, and nine in ten wanted the government to find alternative markets for their goods.
Pavlou now occupies a prominent place in the lively national debate - and Beijing has noticed. In August, Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian accused the 21-year-old of "pursuing an anti-China agenda for political reasons."
"Last year when I advocated the boycott of Chinese goods, divestment and sanctions, a lot of people called me crazy and radical," said Pavlou. "Now you even see some foreign policy experts preaching that strategy."
He spent the 14-week suspension at home after taking relief with his family. Working in his bedroom, which had the flags of East Turkestan, a symbol of the independence of the Uyghurs and Mexican Zapatista rebels, on the walls, he taught students, formed a human rights group called Defend Democracy, and prepared for Supreme Court hearings in one of the state Libel lawsuit for $ 2.6 million filed against the university.
At midnight on November 23, when the suspension expired, he and several friends lit cigars and popped bubbly bottles at the campus entrance. Someone yelled, "He's back!" In February, when the new semester begins, Australia's most notorious student will return. He may not be alone in hoping it will be his final year of class.
The special correspondent Petrakis reported from Bengali and the Times employee Bengali from Singapore.
This is the seventh in a series of occasional articles about the impact of China's global power on the lives of nations and people.
This story originally appeared in the Los Angeles Times.
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