I first heard of Drew Pavlou, a UQ student Senator, in the height of the Hong Kong protests last year when he made local waves supporting Hong Kong at the University of Queensland’s (UQ) St Lucia campus. This demonstration, as I recall, got a little heated, but I didn’t hear much come of it until recently, with Pavlou reaching an international audience and entering the national discourse. The reason? That protest has since become a small movement of its own against UQ’s connections with the Chinese Communist Party.
I don’t know Pavlou personally, but as a Queensland University of Technology (QUT) graduate we probably have a number of acquaintances, and I’ve kept somewhat up to date with his actions through social media groups, because they inevitably turn political on occasion. His current situation interests me, however, because it is quite bizarre to watch it unfold, as well as the reaction and following he appears to be generating, for good or ill.
As the headlines have stated, Pavlou has now been suspended for two years from UQ as a result of his activism supporting Hong Kong and criticising the CCP, coincidentally the end of his term as Senator. This punishment has been attributed to UQ trying to placate the CCP, with which it has a number of ties to, including courses directly funded by them, although the Chancellor has questioned the harshness of it. As he should, because this is a troubling outcome.
Having looked through some of Pavlou’s actions this past year, he does seem to be a bit of a provocateur, even if his motives are well-meaning. In the New York Times’ article linked above, he even admits he isn’t particularly polite in his methods or swipes, and indeed, some of his activities could be seen as questionable. However, none of them, no matter how negative one could try to spin them, should result in his studies being suspended. Ironically, while this suspension has been touted as a move to silence Pavlou, it has only increased his notoriety and reputation whilst increasing criticism of UQ.
Obviously we can’t deduce how much UQ’s decision to work towards silencing Pavlou was influenced by their connections to the CCP, or whether the CCP themselves put pressure on the university, but it does appear the be the only tangible motive. This student and activist was stirring up trouble that could potentially affect their relationship with China and the international students that travel from there. Due to our own government’s attacks on public education on all levels, public universities have been (somewhat unfairly) condemned for searching elsewhere for funding out of necessity. With China, a global superpower, and South East Asia on our doorstep, that’s the logical pivot.
I’ll leave the arguments about whether or not UQ’s connections with the CCP are acceptable or not aside here. What I want to focus on is the fact that that debate is seemingly being stifled, something which, regardless of one’s position on China, no one should accept. Personally, it should be mentioned that I am not a fan of the CCP in any capacity, and I support the causes that Pavlou has been speaking on, namely the oppression of those in Hong Kong, Tibet, and the Uyghur population in Xinjiang. China is an authoritarian State and they should be condemned for their human rights abuses and invasive monitoring of citizens.
One of the hallmarks of authoritarian practice is quashing freedom of speech and expression. Any power structure that attempts to achieve this should be criticised heavily. From State, corporate, and religious powers this is common and generally expected, but it is mildly surprising to see such moves being undertaken by an educational institution. I’m sure there are many arguments to be made about how academic freedom is limited or even shut down across the world, but keeping things general, students participating in activism has been a given in universities for decades (albeit in decline).
Even if Pavlou’s criticisms were unfounded or even completely incorrect, I do not see that as grounds for suspending him. I follow Noam Chomsky’s stance where he says even if you despise the person and the views, you should defend their right to express them because it is a discomforting notion to give power the right to decide what is and isn’t permissible debate. Now, this case with Pavlou is not as dramatic as the circumstances Chomsky was dealing with, the idea of the State dictating historical truths, but it’s the extreme of where this can lead.
Pavlou won’t be jailed for his activism, obviously, nor has he been silenced – to the contrary, his voice has been amplified. His case has, however, could set a precedent for the future of activism on university campuses where outside parties (like the CCP) are in play. With education slowly transitioning into a commodity, this opens the doors to investors or other third-party influences being able to target student activism. Even if the debate continues elsewhere, as with Pavlou (pending a reversal of his suspension), the idea of having one’s personal and academic life interrupted so drastically by the very institution they seek education from is startling and would certainly cause many to drop their causes.
As a quick aside, it is interesting to see the direction some of the discussion in the Australian media is taking Pavlou’s stance. For instance, it is not surprising to point out the Murdoch dregs are taking his anti-CCP activism to be anti-China, peddling this distortion to an audience that would rally behind him on the basis of race. When Pavlou tweeted “Black Lives Matter”, a number of his followers – presumably new ones flowing in from the media attention – repeated statements like “All Lives Matter” and made other unsavoury comments.
Despite this, I don’t see anything to suggest Pavlou subscribes to the Murdoch brand of politics. In fact, someone from the QUT Guilt defended him against this by explaining what he understood to be Pavlou’s true political leanings.
It seems to be a difficult concept for some, but the Chinese Communist Party is not exactly communist, just like the Soviet Union wasn’t, and just like Lenin’s Revolution had nothing to do with progressing socialism. The true “left”, if you wish to use such labels, recognises that these are authoritarian and dangerous power structures and can, without contradiction, believe in their ideals whilst condemning injustice carried out by “communists”.
Hopefully Pavlou can prevail against UQ’s current decision and keep speaking up for the rights of those oppressed by the CCP, and hopefully he can consolidate his positions well enough to fend off the wave of unsavoury supporters Sky and other media outlets seem to have gifted him.
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