An Australian university student who has never visited China and has only a modest social media following would seem an unlikely target for the Chinese government.
However, when a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman personally denounced Drew Pavlou at a news conference, it was just the next phase in an extraordinary campaign against the 21-year-old that has fueled concerns over China’s targeting of critics overseas.
Pavlou first placed himself in the superpower’s sights when in July last year he organized a small sit-in at the University of Queensland, where he studies, to protest against various Chinese government policies.
Since then, the Global Times — a nationalist state-run tabloid — has published a series of articles branding him an “anti-China rioter” and portraying him as the face of alleged anti-Chinese racism in Australia.
Pavlou, a philosophy student, said he had also received death threats after one of China’s envoys in Australia labeled him a “separatist.”
The ministry’s targeting of Pavlou occurred last month when the spokesman was asked about a photograph showing a Chinese diplomat walking across people’s backs in the Pacific island nation of Kiribati.
“There was a person named Drew Pavlou who revealed this photo. This person has always been anti-China out of political motives,” the spokesman said, even though Pavlou neither took the photo nor was the first to share it.
Pavlou said he was playing Grand Theft Auto on his Xbox at the time and that he “was just absolutely shocked.”
“It’s very weird for a superpower to be focusing on one 21-year-old Aussie student, one Aussie bloke who fundamentally is pretty stupid and does a lot of dumb things,” Pavlou told reporters.
At times, Pavlou’s confrontational brand of advocacy has invited criticism, and made him a useful foil for Beijing.
He was accused of racism after posing outside his university’s Chinese-funded Confucius Institute with a sign declaring it a “COVID-19 biohazard” early in the pandemic.
He now regrets the stunt, but still does not understand why Beijing has kept him in its sights.
One explanation is that his advocacy has touched a nerve.
As well as criticizing China’s violent crackdowns in Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet, Pavlou has drawn attention to the cozy relationship between Australian universities and the Chinese state.
Those ties are now being investigated by several Australian authorities for fear the influx of Chinese cash might have jeopardized the national interest.
Elaine Pearson, Australia director for Human Rights Watch, said a “thin-skinned” Beijing had only drawn greater attention to Pavlou and his advocacy.
“It’s pretty obvious from China’s actions more broadly that it really has no tolerance for dissent or opposing views these days,” she said.
Pavlou’s antics also led the University of Queensland (UQ) to amass a 186-page dossier of alleged disciplinary breaches against him, from incendiary social media posts to using a pen in a campus shop without paying for it.
Pavlou was suspended for two years, later reduced to the rest of this year on appeal.
He is suing the university, for A$3.5 million (US$2.56 million) for alleged breach of contract and defamation.
The university has faced high-profile criticism over its handling of Pavlou’s case, including from former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, who told local media the institution risked being seen as “bending the knee to Beijing.”
Like many Australian colleges, the university became highly dependent on tuition fees from international students.
A university spokeswoman denied any “political motivations” in pursuing disciplinary action against Pavlou.
“Neither of the findings of serious misconduct concerned Mr Pavlou’s personal or political views,” she said, adding freedom of speech was “of utmost importance to UQ.”
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