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China’s War on Critics and Democracy

CJ Werleman speaks to Drew Pavlou about his experience of the force of Chinese Communist Party repression – when he held a protest at his university in Australia

Drew Pavlou during a protest in support of Hong Kong outside the Chinese consulate in Brisbane on 30 May 2020. Photo: Dan Peled/AAP/PA Images

China’s War on Critics and Democracy

CJ Werleman speaks to Drew Pavlou about his experience of the force of Chinese Communist Party repression – when he held a protest at his university in Australia

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Imagine you’re an Australian citizen, attending an Australian university, at which you participate in a peaceful protest against China’s persecution of Uyghur Muslims and the violent repression of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong.

During this on-campus protest, you’re violently attacked by a mob of trespassing and face mask-wearing Chinese nationalists who have no affiliation or association with the university and, later, after you’ve been identified in the media, you and your family members are hit with a barrage of death threats from these same people and their online sympathisers.

Now let’s say the Chinese Consul General in Canberra issues a statement expressing his support for your attackers, describing them as “patriotic”.

Naturally, you would expect both your university and Government to have your back by condemning the actions and words of both the perpetrators and China’s top diplomat.

Well, when all of the above happened to Drew Pavlou, a 20-year-old student at the University of Queensland, his school administrators sided with his attackers and China’s Consul General, and then suspended him, shortly after the student body elected Pavlou to its senate in August 2019.

“I still wake up every morning, pinching myself and asking how did this happen,” Pavlou says. “It’s just so absurd, that an Australian citizen can be expelled for criticising the Chinese Government’s human rights abuses. To be expelled for standing up to those abuses in a democracy is actually quite incredible.”

The Hidden Hand

Pavlou’s extraordinary ordeal not only represents another example of how China is now flexing its economic muscle to silent critics and political opponents and undermine democracy far from its own shores, but also how Western democracies are collapsing, at least incrementally, under the weight of Beijing’s influence and clout.

In Australia, and elsewhere, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda is being disseminated and parroted without challenge thanks to Beijing’s Hidden Hand, the title of a new book by Clive Hamilton and Mareike Ohlberg, which describes how the CCP uses various channels of influence, including party institutions, to advance its geopolitical ambitions.

One of those channels, the Confucius Institute – a Beijing-controlled agency – is directly related to the story of Drew Pavlou and the University of Queensland, which relies on China for 20% of its total budget, with a significant share of that revenue driven by international student fees paid by students from China.

CCP officials have openly described the institute as “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up”, while a number of Australian academics told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute that the presence and influence of the Confucius Institute on their campuses “modified their remarks inside and outside the classroom for fear of not being able to visit China or losing funding sources or of causing problems for Chinese students”.

A recent Four Corners investigation revealed how the Confucius Institute had now “veered into curriculum development and honorary staff appointments”, thus threatening Australia’s national security interests while advancing pro-authoritarian ideals and undermining trust in democracy.

It was also recently revealed that the University of Queensland offers a third-year economics course in which the teaching materials are sponsored by the Confucius Institute and accuse Uyghur Muslims and pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong of carrying out “terrorist” activities.

“Australia’s science and technology priorities are being set by the Chinese Government because we enter into collaborations that have really been designed to support China’s goals, not ours,” Professor John Fitzgerald, who served as a chair on DFAT’s Australia-China Council, told ABC News. “Many universities are very happy to proceed with whatever it is… because of the money and prestige involved.”

It turns out that the vice-chancellor who oversaw Pavlou’s suspension was – until recently – a senior consultant to the Confucius Institute and a member of its governing council, which oversees the more than 500 branches operating in universities throughout the world.

But Pavlou’s story is not the only one of its kind.

Money Money Money

When Elaine Pearson, an adjunct professor at University of New South Wales and the Australian director of Human Rights Watch, expressed concern regarding the human rights implications of Hong Kong’s new national security law, and called on the United Nations to appoint a special envoy to the island territory, she became the target of an aggressive smear campaign coordinated by pro-CCP Chinese students, who demanded she be sacked and the school boycotted.

Her employer responded by deleting her article from the school’s website, saying that it had decided to “remove the posts on our social channels as they were not in line with our – policies – and the views of an academic were being misconstrued as representing the university”.

To say Australian institutions are terrified of losing their flow of Chinese money and students is an understatement – given that more than 250,000 Chinese national students are enrolled in Australian universities, making education Australia’s third largest export.

But if students and academics are feeling pressured to temper their criticism of China’s human rights violations, or even engage in self-censorship, what will happen when – not if – Beijing begins investing in the country’s new media outlets?

While that might be a question for another day, Australia, and other countries that are becoming increasingly dependent on Chinese trade, must now reconcile itself with the fact that Beijing advances authoritarianism, derides democracy, persecutes and mass incarcerates minorities and imprisons political opponents – all of which run counter to Australia’s democratic norms, institutions and character.

“I just want to help build a better world where human rights and dignity are respected,” says Pavlou. “We aren’t going to be just active bystanders while the Chinese Government does these terrible things. We are also actively fighting against our own problems and our own human rights abuses. That’s what I want to fight for.”

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