In a week from now, UQ student leader Drew Pavlou will face an internal hearing at the University of Queensland to decide whether or not he will be expelled for having organised rallies against various pro-China organisations on campus and generally being a pain in the *rse of UQ’s management. I want to talk about the merits of the case, what Drew should expect, and the wider battle within Australia between those who make money off the Chinese and the pro-Americans who want these economic ties severed. This battle will involve Drew’s case.
The bare bones of the case are simple: Drew is a charismatic 20-year old student who likes to get in trouble and expose corruption and misdeeds around him. This modern-day Don Quixote finds himself at a university (UQ) where its management is basically a kind of maffia that has plenty of skeletons in the cupboard. Hence Drew has been running amok, getting himself elected as student representative in the UQ Senate. Its the place where all the important decisions of management are usually rubber stamped, but where Drew now causes a riot about every little corrupt decision made. I can only smile when I think of how he will have thrown his indignation around in those Senate rooms when it came to decisions around university property-deals or English-language ability requirements.
From his position on the UQ Senate, Drew has complained in the media about the exorbitant salaries the vice chancellor Peter Hoj and his many cronies give themselves, as well as their selling out to the Chinese government in various ways. They for instance gave the Chinese consul general an honorary academic title, and allowed a Confucius institute on campus whose main role is to spread the view of the world of the Chinese government, ie the Party. They do this via “sponsoring” academics and academic courses, where the message of those academics is in line with what is deemed acceptable by the embassy. From a traditional Brisbane perspective, there is nothing unusual about this: it is simply good business to cosy up to rich and powerful friends. Queensland as a whole has very strong economic ties to China: its mining companies are largely China-owned, many students and tourists come from China, and its property boom largely rests on the Chinese as well. UQ in that sense is simply part of a larger convenant between the Queensland elites and Chinese interests.
When Drew started organising somewhat aggressive demonstrations in support of students in Hong Kong, and also expressed strong views about the treatment of the Uighur in China, involving heated exchanges with Chinese students on the UQ campus, the management of UQ tried to shut him up. They did their usual bully shtick on him, via a 186 page allegation document where the internal UQ-police (whose task is to do whatever Hoj wants them to do) went over every tweet and facebook comment they could find by him, and package it all up to paint a picture of a second Che Guevarra who was a menace to the University of Queensland. In protest, Drew managed to get 20,000 signatures supporting his case, a QC who was prepared to represent him pro bono, and he also gave several media appearances.
My interest in the case
I am interested in the case for two reasons. For one, I have been through a similar trajectory myself with UQ’s management, culminating in a court case that I won, around a similar “hot topic” (see here for the court decision which made clear UQ management had not followed its own rules nor natural justice when inventing and pursuing their case against me). In my case, I dared to research racist behaviour in Brisbane, looking at the question what type of ethnicity was more likely to get a free ride on buses, finding that white and East Asian (!) students were far more likely to get a free ride than black or Indian students. The Brisbane elites disliked having such stories in the media and UQ’s management was happy to go after me using any excuse it could. My case also had media, petitions, and the like, but ultimately there was no strong group really bothered enough by racism in Brisbane to truly stand against UQ management.
The second reason for my interest is that I researched China for about 5 years and as such re-designed the “Economics of China” course at UQ around 2013. I included many aspects of its political system in that course. I had about 200 students in each year of that course, mostly Chinese, and they were incredibly eager to hear how the Chinese system truly operated. You could hear a pin drop when I was teaching how and why Mao organised the Great Leap Forward that got an estimated 30 million Chinese killed, or the Cultural Revolution, which did even more damage to the Chinese economy and Chinese culture than the current coronavirus lock downs are doing to the West. The room also had a few Chinese student leaders who were basically there to promote the Party line and who were mightily pissed off at how openly I was talking about succession within the Party, which was specifically designed to prevent another Mao type person from assuming power. After I left, the more interesting and important parts of this course got taken out as a more docile and pro-Party line was adopted.
So I know how UQ operates, how the Brisbane elites and their legal system works, and how the Party operates within UQ. I thus have little doubt that Drew’s protests against the pro-Party organisations at UQ are based on a reality of on-campus lobbying by the Chinese embassy. That is the purpose of these Confucius Institutes, just as it would be the purpose of American institutes abroad to push their political line. Similar to anti-American demonstrations in the Vietnam era, Drew has organised demonstrations against the pro-Party organisations on the campus where he resides. And just like the anti-Vietnam demonstrators often got beaten up, Drew too is now forced onto the defensive.
What Drew should expect
Within the system that Hoj and his predecessors at UQ have set up, UQ management is judge, jury and executioner. Neither truth nor ethical principles will have much to do with how they handle him. Drew should for instance not count on the unions. The leaders of the National Tertiary Education Union long ago joined management, and they abhor things like freedom of speech. UQ management IS thus the law at UQ. They will have many phone conferences (which do not leave a paper trail) with each other wherein they decide Drew’s fate, and the main consideration in those conferences will be political. Hoj and his successor will have designed a strategy in consultation with their legal council and the small coterie around UQ’s management.
What UQ management in particular will want is to shut Drew up. They clearly hate his guts for his antics on the Senate and they will be very mindful of how dependent UQ is on Chinese money. They need to be seen to punish somebody who openly challenges China lobbying on their campus. In gross terms, this will coincide with the interests and opinions of the business and political elites in Brisbane. So normally speaking, Drew would be f*cked, at least in terms of his future at UQ. They would not normally care too much what the other students think and they would even shrug their shoulders at 20,000 signatures. Whole economic sectors in Queensland depend on continued good relations with China and that weighs far heavier than 20,000 signatures or even a few media appearances.
Drew has no resources or personal power that they will fear. Even though they will see he might do well in politics, that is a worry for someone else. UQ management has billion of dollars of resources at their disposal or backing them, and no personal fortune of Drew or his backers will worry them.
So Drew should expect that what will determine his fate as a UQ student and Senate representative are forces completely outside of his control. Which larger powers are on his side then, potentially?
The pro-American lobby.
The wild card in this case is the pro-American lobby in Australia. They are really powerful and should they take up his case and want Drew to win, they will make it happen. Neither UQ management nor the whole of Queensland politics could stand against them. This lobby is basically in control of the Australian armed forces, of its secret services, of various think tanks (ASIO and the like), and many of the federal politicians. Moreover, the pro-American lobby has the sympathies of the Australian public and of course the Murdoch and other media are behind them as well. Once they find a clear target, nothing in Queensland can stand against them, not even with the backing of the Chinese embassy.
I am not privy to whether the American lobby has taken an interest in Drew’s case, but the fact that he has been on television and has found a pro-bono QC does mean they will know about the case and will have looked carefully whether it can be used for what they want to achieve, which is an economic divorce between Australia and China. What will interest them in the case is the possibility of many student protests against the various Confucius Institutes in Australia. They will also like other anti-Party activities of students. Such protests would probably spell the end of large numbers of Chinese students in Australian universities, which is exactly what the pro-American lobby will want. That lobby wouldn’t mind the Chinese being replaced with Indians or any other non-Chinese group.
So the pro-America lobby might take up Drew’s case if they think that helping him openly win would lead to many more Drews around the country who would take up the mantle of noble human rights activists outraged by actions of the Chinese leadership.
Personally, I feel ambivalent about this. I am ultimately on the side of the West, but I deplore the anti-China sentiments that have been whipped up in Australia and do not think that the West or the Americans are morally superior to the Chinese. The Chinese should be our friends and trading partners, not rivals. However, I also do not like the lobby activities of the Chinese embassy in Australia, am highly critical of UQ management, and ultimately will go along with the pro-American lobby, albeit grudgingly. The Americans might be bullies, but they are my bullies.
Anyhow, the question then becomes whether the American lobby really will take up Drew’s case.
How would they help Drew? They would go after UQ management personally and in a quite threatening way. Just as Hoj operates by having his police dogs go after any of his enemies on campus, making up bogus accusations simply because they can, so too do the Americans operate, but far nastier. They could for instance simply write him a letter, subtly warning that they are thinking of investigating his personal financial ties with the Chinese embassy, as well as the ties with the Chinese of the various property-owning entities that the UQ maffia as a whole has. They could whisper about “tax evasion”, “rules on foreign ownership”, “abuse of privileged information”, etc. They could do lots of other things: the Americans are really good at achieving tactical objectives.
The pro-Americans could thus credibly threaten Hoj personally with a life in prison, and they could similarly threaten UQ’s management with economic oblivion. That’s how they operate. The worst Hoj can do is get rid of people on the UQ campus. The worst the Americans can do is have you tortured non-stop in a prison. Just look at Julian Assange, a Queensland boy who fell foul of the interests of the American establishment. Of course it is unlikely any of this would be relevant in this case, but one should not underestimate the ability of the Americans to be nasty to those in their way.
The pro-American lobby could similarly out-muscle the Brisbane elites, though they would not want it to truly come to an open confrontation. Rather, the pro-American lobby would want to slowly sever the Australian-Chinese ties on the sly. Anti-Party demonstrations on university campuses would suit them fine.
How could the case develop?
UQ’s management will also have made the deductions and calculations I make above. They will be very cognisant of the threat of the pro-American lobby. Since they have former army people in their own ranks (like Maurie McNarn), they will have been sounding out their contacts on what the pro-American lobby thinks of the case. They will have been trying to convince that lobby that Drew is a random missile who can’t be trusted and who is a menace to every interest group, including the Americans. UQ management has the advantage in that they know people in this lobby personally and can thus whisper into their ears directly. Drew won’t know the key players in this lobby personally, and his supporters who do know them will be unlikely to allow him to directly talk to the key players in that lobby.
Yet, despite their ability to liaise directly with the American lobby, UQ management has lost the visual image around Drew’s case, which is that his case is about the influence of the Chinese Communist Party on the campus of an Australian university. However much the pro-American lobby might be personal buddies with UQ management, they will not want an open loss of Drew’s campaign, whatever they think about him personally. Their personal friendship with people in UQ’s management might make them hesitate about forcing those friends to openly lose, but if they take an interest, they won’t want Drew to be seen to lose either.
So this opens all kinds of compromise solutions. UQ management will primarily want Drew out off the Senate and prevented from further demonstrations. The pro-American lobby, if they take an interest, will at the minimum not want him to openly lose or to have him prevented from speaking out against the Chinese in the future.
Perhaps this is hence what they will decide: suspend Drew from the Senate and meanwhile take no actions against him of any kind, allowing him to continue studying and speaking out on campus, meanwhile threatening him with ongoing investigations that “monitor his future activities”. They will hope that this shuts him up or, even better, gets him to move on.