Tyrone Siu Reuters
SYDNEY — An Australian university with close links to China is taking disciplinary action, including possible expulsion, against a student known for his criticism of Beijing, in a case that has triggered a free-speech debate and renewed scrutiny of colleges’ reliance on Chinese students.
The University of Queensland, which refers to itself as “partners in the global economy” with China, last week sent 20-year-old philosophy student Drew Pavlou a 186-page dossier detailing 11 allegations against him, ranging from failing to pay for a pen at a campus art shop to damaging the university’s reputation by condemning police attacks on student protesters in Hong Kong in November.
The disciplinary action alleges he ridiculed, satirized and mocked the university’s relationship with China, including posing in a hazmat suit outside the college’s Confucius Institute — one of many such facilities on Australian campuses whose operations and influence are being scrutinized as part of a government review.
Pavlou, who has criticized China’s repression of its Uighur and Tibetan minorities and supported Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters, was told that his fate would be determined at a two-hour meeting with university officials on April 27, according to a person familiar with the document.
“I’m really concerned,” Pavlou said in an interview. “I think it’s really just an attempt to get back at me for my political views and activism, which has made things difficult for the university with their relationship with the Chinese government.”
Even in a country without explicit free-speech protections, the university’s disciplinary action against one of its most prominent students is highly unusual.
In July, Pavlou was involved in a scuffle, and said he was punched by pro-Beijing students, during a rally in support of Hong Kong’s democracy movement at the university’s Brisbane campus.
Afterward, China’s consul general in Brisbane, Xu Jie, who is also an adjunct professor at the university, accused the democracy activists of “anti-China separatist activities” and praised the counterprotesters. The statement, in a post on the consulate’s website, prompted Foreign Minister Marise Payne to warn foreign diplomats to respect Australia’s tradition of lawful protest.
[Hong Kong protesters make last stand as police close in on besieged university]
Pavlou’s activities helped him get elected to the university’s governing senate, giving him an official platform to increase his critiques of what he said were restrictions on free speech out of deference to the communist nation, which is the source of 11,624 students to the university over the past five years.
The University of Queensland’s website states that it has “more student mobility, research collaborations, and commercialization partnerships with China than with almost any other country.”
Last month Pavlou posted a photo on Facebook of himself in a yellow, plastic full-body suit, with a face mask, hanging a sign saying “COVID-19 BIOHAZARD CONDEMNED” at the entrance to the university’s Confucius Institute, which is partly funded by the Chinese government to promote Chinese culture and language.
“As a student representative, it’s my job to keep students safe,” Pavlou said in a post cited in the allegations against him. “That’s why I’ve placed the UQ Confucius Institute under total and complete lockdown until biohazard risk contained!”
A university spokeswoman said Pavlou would not be penalized for airing his political beliefs, but the university expected students to comply with policies that reflect its values and community expectations.
[China’s influence on campus chills free speech in Australia, New Zealand]
The “disciplinary processes seek to address alleged contraventions of university policy,” the spokeswoman said. “They do not seek to prevent students from expressing their views or to limit their right to freedom of speech.”
Concerns that Australian universities’ financial dependence on China has compromised their independence, and allowed Chinese front groups to freely organize on campus, led Australia’s center-right government in August to establish a “university foreign interference task force,” which includes representatives of intelligence agencies, to share information and develop policies to counter the threat.
Coronavirus restrictions have crippled Australia’s universities, which rely on full-fee paying Chinese students.
Andrew Laming, a conservative lawmaker, said it was “hard to” support all of Pavlou’s statements but a clear case had to be made by the university before free speech was restricted.
“As long as the case against Pavlou isn’t made public, then there really are no grounds to insist he be silent,” Laming said.
“He is responsible for making a lot of powerful people uncomfortable and the powerful need to understand that will occur.”
China’s influence on campus chills free speech in Australia, New Zealand
Hong Kong protesters make last stand as police close in on besieged university
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