Australian college student faces possible expulsion from school for anti-Beijing activism
Last July, Drew Pavlou, a student at the University of Queensland, organized a rally on campus to support Hong Kong protesters, which ended in violence when dozens of Chinese students showed up to disrupt the event and physically attack several organizers. Since then, Pavlou began to publicly voice his support for Hong Kong protesters while condemning the Chinese government’s mass-internment of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. However, last month, he received a 186-page report that contains 11 allegations the school had made against him, mostly about his activism over the last nine months. Now he faces a possible expulsion from the school.
Drew Pavlou may have never imagined that his activism will lead him to a possible expulsion from the University of Queensland (UQ.) The 20-year-old undergraduate student has been actively showing solidarity with Hong Kong protesters amid the months-long anti-government protest while criticizing Beijing’s mass-internment of the Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. He also has repeatedly questioned the university’s suspicious ties with the Chinese Communist Party.
However, last month, he received a 186-page report from UQ, and the report contained 11 allegations that the school had made against him. According to Pavlou, most of the allegations are related to his activism and online comments over the last 9 months.
“The school views me as a critic and they wanted to shut me down,” said Pavlou. “They went through the entire rule book and figured out which rule I may have broken. Then they used those rules to get back at me.”
The university was scheduled to hold a secret hearing to review all allegations made against Pavlou, but the hearing has since been postponed to May 18. However, when new about his possible expulsion from the school became public, different sectors in the Australian society and media outlets around the world start paying attention to the case.
China’s government-run tabloid Global Times published an article on April 24, claiming that they interviewed Chinese and Australian students at UQ who supported the school’s decision to expel Pavlou.
Global Times said Pavlou had organized “anti-China and secessionist protests connected to China’s Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, Xinjiang Uygur Autonomous Region, and the Tibet Autonomous Region.”
“Pavlou often purported to make statements on behalf of the university when protesting or posting comments on social media, which later harmed the school’s reputation,” Global Times wrote.
An act of desperation or a justifiable “discipline?”
So far, UQ hasn’t made the content of the 186-page report public, but several individuals have already reviewed the report, including Australian scholar Clive Hamilton. According to him, the allegations made against Pavlou are “extraordinary.”
“Pavlou is a very active student on social media, and he engages in pranks as well as posting highly sarcastic commentary on the university,” Hamilton said. “The university has listed a series of pranks, sarcastic commentary and legitimate criticism of the university’s position as grounds for expulsion. They claimed he has violated a whole series of university laws and principles. It really shows their desperation.”
Pavlou said he believes UQ tried to silence him because the school’s executives didn’t want to harm its relationship with the Chinese government. “UQ wants to crack down on me because I’m critical of the school leadership’s ties to the Chinese Communist Party, and they don’t want to anger the CCP,” said Pavlou.
“The list of ‘evidence’ that they provided went back months, and it looks like they have been compiling a case against me for 9 months. How would they even know that I used a pen in a shop? This makes me feel like they tried to collect any possible wrongdoing that I have committed and fit them with rules in the school’s charter.”
Additionally, Pavlou said UQ has intentionally sent him the 186-page report one week before he was scheduled to go to court with the Chinese Consulate General in Brisbane, Xu Jie. He believes the timing was intentionally coordinated.
“The university decided to drop the disciplinary hearing on me one week before my court case against Xu Jie,” Pavlou said. “Then Global Times came out with an article praising the school’s decision to expel me. Any informed observer who has been following these events would conclude this is politically motivated and it’s an attempt to demonstrate that the university can still be trusted by Beijing.”
In response to public inquiries about its allegations against Pavlou, UQ explained on its website that they have been advising Pavlou about the duties of an elected member of the UQ Senate.
“As an elected member of the UQ Senate from 1 January 2020, he does not have the authority to speak on behalf of the University,” the University wrote. “The University has directed Mr Pavlou to cease purporting to make statements on behalf of the University.”
His path to activism
The series of incidents began last July, when Pavlou organized a peaceful rally to support Hong Kong protesters on UQ’s campus with other students. However, on the day of the rally, a dozens of Chinese students suddenly showed up and began to chant “Hong Kong is a part of China” while blasting the Chinese national anthem with a portable speaker.
Not long after their provocation, video footage showed some Chinese students began to grab the signs from Hong Kong students and other Australian students who joined the peaceful rally. Some signs were torn apart at the scene. Simultaneously, a Chinese man wearing sunglasses took the loud speaker from Pavlou while the other Chinese student pushed him.
The next day, Xu Jie, the Chinese Consulate General in Brisbane commented on the incident, saying some people with specific agenda tried to organize anti-China and secessionist activities on UQ’s campus. He also praised the Chinese students for their “patriotic behaviors.” A few months later, Pavlou sued Xu at a district court in Brisbane, asking Xu to backtrack his anti-China comments and demanding an apology from him.
Since then, Pavlou has been actively commenting on issues related to the Hong Kong protest, the re-education camps in Xinjiang as well as the Confucius Institute at UQ. All relevant comments that he made have all been included into the 11 allegations against him.
An incident of historical significance
Dr. Hamilton pointed out that Pavlou’s case reflects Beijing’s deepening influence over academic institutions in Australia over the last 20 years. “Beijing has been grooming the executives at UQ, along with most executives at universities in Australia,” Hamilton said. “UQ’s senior executives have developed a close network of friendship with bureaucrats and senior party cadres in China. They have begun to see the world through Beijing’s eyes.”
Hamilton argues that UQ knows maintaining a good relationship with Beijing is essential to the university’s future financial health. “So when its relationship with Beijing is threatened by evidence-based accusations, the school overreacts and turned quite viciously on a 20-year-old undergraduate student who pointed out that problematic relationship between the university and China,” Hamilton said.
“I have never seen anything like this in Australia, an attack on an undergraduate student launched by the university.” Hamilton said. “I think it’s truly unprecedented. If UQ were to succeed, it will be a profound assault on free speech in Australia.”
Hamilton described the case against Pavlou as “an egregious example of the attack on academic freedom in Australia.” He says members of the Australian government and the Australian intelligence community have all mentioned what Pavlou has said about UQ.
“Pavlou is saying it in a particularly sharp and provocative way, and he is vulnerable,” said Hamilton. “UQ is exploiting his vulnerability.”
Hamilton said the case is being watched closely by the Australian government, and if UQ were to succeed in expelling Pavlou, Hamilton expects the Australian government to intervene.
“I think this is an event of historical significance,” Hamilton explained. “If the university wins this case, which means Beijing wins, then Australia is in real trouble. The message that will be sent across all campuses in Australia is that you must not criticize your university for getting into bed with Beijing.”
And even though he has received countless online harassment and even death threats, Pavlou said nothing will ever stop him from fighting for universal human rights. “This is what I believe in, so nothing will ever stop me,” Pavlou said. “I believe in this so strongly that I’d rather die than give up my belief.”
This article was first published in Mandarin on DW’s Chinese website.