Beginning on July 26, 2019, University of Queensland student Drew Pavlou reportedly became the target of a pattern of violent threats and harassment in retaliation for his role in organizing a campus demonstration related to democracy and human rights in Hong Kong.
Pavlou is a twenty year-old student at Queensland, who has reportedly been involved in demonstrations supporting human rights and democracy in Hong Kong and mainland China, and an outspoken critic of what he alleges is China’s extraterritorial influence on the University of Queensland, among other institutions.
On July 24, Pavlou was reportedly assaulted by counter-protesters during a demonstration he helped to organize, promoting democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. When the counter-protesters — reportedly comprised mostly of mainland Chinese students — attempted to shut down the demonstration, physical altercations broke out between students (see report). According to Pavlou, a man at the demonstration ripped his megaphone and poster from him before he and another man began punching Pavlou in the ribs and side of the head.
The next day, the Chinese Consul-General in Brisbane, Dr. Xu Jie, who is also an adjunct professor at Queensland, issued a statement on the Consulate’s website condemning the original demonstration — describing it as a “separatist” activity — and praising the actions of the counter-protesters. (As of this report, the statement is unavailable on the Consulate’s website.) Shortly thereafter, Chinese state-backed media, including The Global Times, published reports about the July 24 demonstration in which they described Pavlou as a key organizer.
Shortly following Xu’s statement and Chinese media coverage, Pavlou reported that he became the target of online threats and harassment, including over Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and SMS. He told The Brisbane Times, “I have received threats against my parents and family. There were rape and murder threats against my mother.” In a July 27 Tweet, he told followers, “Due to ongoing CCP death threats against me and my family, I will cease using this account for time being and will not be able to attend the Wednesday UQ protest.”
Pavlou also reported that, shortly after the Consulate’s statement was published, the University allegedly asked him to pull social media posts that were critical of China, and informed him that his enrollment was “under review.”
In mid-October, it was reported that Pavlou made an application in Queensland Magistrates’ Court against Consul-General Xu, alleging that the statement issued by the Consulate led to a series of threats and harassment against him, and seeking an order that he apologize and retract the statement. The Consul-General reportedly did not appear at a November 22 court hearing. The next hearing is scheduled to take place in April 2020.
As of November 21, Pavlou reported that he continued to face violent threats. In a post over Twitter, Pavlou said, “Sadly I have to change address due to the escalation in intensity of death threats against my family since announcing my court case against the Chinese Consul General. Don’t really have a place to live at the moment – have no idea where I will be sleeping tomorrow.”
Scholars at Risk is concerned about reports of violent threats and harassment in retaliation for a student’s expressive activities. State and university authorities have a responsibility to take reasonable measures to ensure the safety of higher education communities, including investigating reports of threats and harassment against students, scholars, and other personnel. In addition to the harm to the immediate victim, such incidents undermine academic freedom, institutional autonomy, and democratic society generally.