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Student Activist in Australia Is Suspended After China Protests

SYDNEY, Australia — A student activist has been suspended from one of Australia’s leading universities after calling for democracy in Hong Kong and repeatedly criticizing Chinese influence on campus.

The student, Drew Pavlou, 20, a philosophy major at the University of Queensland, has been barred until 2022, through the end of his term as a student member of the university senate. He had been six months from graduating.

“It’s a calculated move to silence me,” said Mr. Pavlou, who describes himself as a human rights advocate. “It’s because the University of Queensland wants to do everything possible to avoid offending its Chinese allies.”

University officials did not offer a reason for the suspension, which was announced Friday night by a disciplinary panel, but the move followed 11 allegations of misconduct that focused mainly on Mr. Pavlou’s unorthodox tactics and combative comments on social media.

Even at a time when relations between Australia and China are tense, with Beijing imposing tariffs on barley and cutting beef imports in the wake of the Australian government’s push for a coronavirus inquiry, Mr. Pavlou has grabbed headlines by goading university officials into making him an enemy rather than just a provocateur.

In Australia, a country that does not explicitly protect freedom of expression in the Constitution, his methods are those of a free-speech insurgent.

In one case, according to documents from the proceedings, he was accused of writing messages on note cards in the campus bookstore with a black marker that he had not purchased, returning the pen to the shelf after being asked to buy it.

    Updated May 27, 2020

    • Where we left off

      In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong protesters began fighting a rule that would allow extraditions to China. These protests eventually broadened to protect Hong Kong’s autonomy from China. The protests wound down when pro-democracy candidates notched a stunning victory in Hong Kong elections in November, in what was seen as a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.

      Late in 2019, the protests then quieted.

    • How it’s different this time

      Those peaceful mass rallies that occurred in June of 2019 were pointed against the territory leadership of Hong Kong. Later, they devolved into often-violent clashes between some protesters and police officers and lasted through November 2019. The current protests are aimed at mainland China.

    • What’s happening now

      This latest round of demonstrations in Hong Kong has been fueled largely by China’s ruling Communist Party move this month to impose new national security legislation for Hong Kong.

      To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

In another instance, in March, he appeared outside the university’s Confucius Institute — cultural outposts of the Chinese government that are on many campuses worldwide — wearing a biosafety suit.

He later posted a photograph of himself and a message on social media accusing the Chinese government of “giving us this pandemic.”

“If the administration don’t shut down campus to stop transmission of the coronavirus,” he wrote on Facebook, “it will simply show that they value money over human lives.”

Another allegation states that Mr. Pavlou published a photograph in a Facebook post of the university’s vice chancellor, Peter Hoj, standing at a lectern in front of the Confucius Institute for a fake event about why Uighurs “must be exterminated” — a reference to the minority Muslim population that the Chinese government has been detaining in the Xinjiang region.

Mr. Pavlou acknowledged that his approach, which also included hard swipes at university leaders and critics on student message boards, could be viewed as ugly and aggressive. “I’m not this polished guy or whatever,” he said in an interview Friday night.

But he insisted that the university had opened “an investigation in search of a crime.”

He added that he was shocked that his case had gone this far because it had only attracted more attention to his cause.

Indeed, the suspension decision — which Mr. Pavlou said he planned to appeal — means that the issues Mr. Pavlou has raised about censorship and influence in higher education will continue to be a subject of intense debate in Australia, where universities have come to depend on Chinese students for billions of dollars in revenue.

The dynamic preceded Mr. Pavlou, and continues to shape debate even now. With the pandemic keeping foreign students outside the country, Australia’s higher education system is in a state of convulsion, cutting teaching and hiring, slashing research, and begging the federal government for assistance.

Mr. Pavlou, who lives with his parents and two dachshunds in Brisbane, in eastern Australia, said he had not initially expected that he would play such a prominent role in the discussion.

He first rose to prominence last July when pro-China protesters attacked a peaceful rally he and a handful of other students at the University of Queensland had been conducting to support the Hong Kong democracy movement.

The violent altercations thrust Mr. Pavlou forward, in part because he relished the spotlight but also because many students from Hong Kong felt more vulnerable, facing intimidation from Beijing and carrying student visas that could be revoked.

On Friday night, with Hong Kong facing an even graver threat to its autonomy from China with the passage of a new security law, some of those students stood in solidarity with Mr. Pavlou.

Jack Yiu, a psychology major from Hong Kong who led the protest with Mr. Pavlou last year, said he had been “frustrated and hopeless for Hong Kong” but also for his ally in Australia, who he said had stood up for freedom of speech and human rights.

“We would do everything in our power to raise awareness of the Chinese Communist Party influence in Australia,” Mr. Yiu said. The university had been “compromised” by China’s ruling party, he added, “and they’ve been using any accusations they can think of against Drew to expel him.”

“There are aspects of the findings and the severity of the penalty which personally concern me,” he said. He added that he would convene a meeting of the university’s senate next week.

Mr. Pavlou will not be allowed to attend, despite being elected by the university’s 35,000 students. He dismissed the sudden burst of concern as a too-little, too-late public relations stunt.

“It’s a travesty,” he said. “There could have been Chinese pressure or they could have very likely decided on their own terms that this is what the Chinese government would want — to take this troublemaker to court.”

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