A 20-year-old University of Queensland student is taking the Chinese government’s most senior representative in the state to court over allegations the consul general accused him of anti-Chinese separatism and exposed him to death threats.
Drew Pavlou’s claim before the court argues the consul general of the People’s Republic of China in Brisbane, Dr Xu Jie, who is also an adjunct professor at the university, accused Pavlou in a formal statement of “separatist activities” – a capital crime in China – and incited death threats against him.
Pavlou, recently elected to the University of Queensland Senate, has made an application under Queensland’s Peace and Good Behaviour Act seeking a retraction of the comments and an apology.
Xu has been summoned to appear in the Brisbane magistrates court on 22 November to respond to the complaint.
Pavlou, an outspoken supporter of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, was a key organiser of a July demonstration at UQ in support of Hong Kong. The rally attracted a violent response from pro-Chinese government students, with Pavlou telling the Guardian he was assaulted twice.
Pavlou was identified by name in the Global Times – a state-owned and communist party controlled newspaper – and in Chinese-language Australian media as a key organiser of the rally.
The next day Xu posted a formal statement on the consul general website praising students who responded with “self-motivated patriotic behaviour” and condemning the protest as “anti-China separatist activities”.
The post read: “A small number of people with ulterior motives carried out anti-China activists at the University of Queensland in Australia, causing indignation and protests from overseas Chinese students of the mainland and Hong Kong.
“The consulate general regards highly the importance of the safety of the overseas Chinese students and affirms the self-motivated patriotic behaviour of the overseas Chinese students. The consulate general resolutely opposes to [sic] any conduct by words or behaviour to split the country … and to incite anti-China behaviour.”
Separatism is a capital crime in China, listed as a crime “endangering national security” in the criminal code, alongside treason, espionage and selling state secrets.
Pavlou told the Guardian following the publication of the consul general’s statement his social media accounts were flooded with abuse, warnings of violence and death threats.
“I do feel scared for my safety,” Pavlou said. “The campaign against me is very aggressive, very organised and very personal. People have posted images of me saying, ‘This is Drew Pavlou, he’s an anti-China separatist’. I have received death threats, threats of violence. I don’t feel safe on campus and I feel like they are trying to intimidate me into being silent.”
He said the threats against him were escalating. This week, the Lennon Wall at UQ – a designated protest space at the university – was vandalised, and a poster of Pavlou posted with the words “Don’t insult Chinese” written across it.
Pavlou said his court application sought an unreserved apology from the consul general.
“I want him to retract his statement [and] to apologise … This has left me fearful for my safety.”
Pavlou said in the aftermath of the consul general’s post, the University of Queensland had also asked him to remove anti-China social media posts and told him his enrolment is “under review”.
He has written to UQ asking that the university donate his entire $50,000 salary – for a two-year term as university senator – to Amnesty International to assist its work protecting and advocating for members of the oppressed Uyghur Muslim minority in China’s Xinjiang province.
Pavlou said he had been approached by some international students at UQ from mainland China who said they agreed with his support for Hong Kong protestors, but that they were afraid to join demonstrations, post on the Lennon Wall, or even be seen talking with Pavlou because they were fearful of retribution.
In the days immediately following Xu’s comments, Australia’s foreign affairs minister, Marise Payne, warned that Australia expected foreign diplomats to respect Australia’s rights to free speech and lawful protest, “even on contentious and sensitive issues”.
“The government would be particularly concerned if any foreign diplomatic mission were to act in ways that could undermine such rights, including by encouraging disruptive or potentially violent behaviour.”
The Guardian sought comment from the consul general through the Chinese embassy in Australia regarding Pavlou’s court application, but received no reply.
In an earlier statement, the embassy defended Xu’s comments.
“We believe that the remarks made by the spokesperson of the consulate general of the People’s Republic of China in Brisbane on July 25th are appropriate and measured. Any misinterpretation of and over-reaction to the remarks are regrettable and unacceptable.”
Pavlou’s lawyer Mark Tarrant said the consul general’s statement carried an extraordinary accusation.
“For a government official to make a statement that the organisers of this protest are engaged in separatism, a capital crime, and for that statement [to be] carried in the Global Times – a state organ – is unacceptable.”
Tarrant said Pavlou had been left vulnerable because of institutional failures to protect his democratic rights.
“He’s only 20 and nobody’s protecting him. The idea is to go to an independent court for the protection of Drew’s right to peaceful protest. We are looking for the court to uphold the rule of law, and protect this student’s fundamental rights. Nobody else is protecting him. The police won’t protect him, the government won’t.”
The Guardian approached the University of Queensland for comment. In a statement online, the university said Xu’s nomination as adjunct professor was supported by the school of languages and cultures, and he will remain an adjunct professor until December 2021.
“The university has no plans for Dr Xu to teach,” the statement said. “In light of the changing geo-political situation, UQ is continuing to monitor and amend policies and practices in a reasonable and responsible way.”
The UQ Senate resolved last month that no serving foreign government officials would be offered honorary or adjunct positions. Existing appointments would not be renewed or extended.
In response to my election to UQ’s Senate, CCP thugs tore down UQ’s Hong Kong Lennon Wall today for a sixth time. They left a picture of me with a message: “Don’t Insult Chinese.”— Drew Pavlou (@DrewPavlou) October 21, 2019
Guess what, the permanent Lennon Wall I will bring to UQ as Senator just got ten feet higher! pic.twitter.com/TAje6MeTq7