The Drew Pavlou case: business with China versus the American lobby

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 background.

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.

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8 Responses to The Drew Pavlou case: business with China versus the American lobby

  1. derrida derider says:

    You’re getting a bit conspiracy minded these days, Paul.

    Yes, our security state is riddled with American agents of influence (most of whom are, like their Chinese agent counterparts, not self-aware enough to understand that that is exactly what they are). But this dispute is just too small for them to take actions such as threats of tax investigations. The ATO is not immune to such peoples’ influence, but is also not their puppet – in Australia doing a Nixon would be too risky to be worth it for small matters (as indeed it proved for Nixon).

    Far more likely is that the Murdoch papers will pick it up and put their usual spin on it to suit Murdoch’s agenda – eg it is not UQ that is wicked but a handful of Chinese agents embedded among the students, forcing their poor fellow students to take part. They may even portray Hoj as a victim rather than a player, trying to keep the peace on campus but forced to acquiesce in this.

    Let’s wait and see how the Brisbane Courier-Mail reports this.

    • paul frijters says:

      true, the case might be too small-fry to bother with.
      But don’t underestimate the organisation of the pro-American lobby nor how nasty then can get to those they believe stand in their way.

  2. Jerry Roberts says:

    There is a Hollywood classic about this sort of thing called “Cool Hand Luke” starring Paul Newman. We had a similar episode in Perth, without the international political implications, when the University crushed a whistle-blower in its archaeology department. On this, on the lock-downs and on many other subjects I agree with you, Paul.

  3. Andy McNABB says:

    Paul, a well written piece. You would be aware of the FIVE EYES Alliance. The members are Australia, Canada, New Zealand, the United Kingdom and the United States. No doubt these events at universities, although smallish, will be watched carefully, ad intelligence shared. The aggravation (both by China and against China) will be of particular interest.
    I served for 20 years in Australian defence, and had significant contact with the “teeth Corps” (that is, the Corps with sharp teeth), and some American officers. Be assured that, while it takes a fair bit to get the Americans involved, when they are aggravated enough, they can call on a gigantic Defence Force.
    By comparison, the Australian Defence Force, is a bit Dads Army (no insult intended, but you know what I mean).
    The Americans were slow with WW2, but when Pearl Harbour was bombed, sprung into action. The rest is history.
    The Americans will not make any direct move against China over university squabbles, but if any strategic American interest is threatened, it could react.

    • paul frijters says:

      Hi Andy,

      yes, I am not really on top of how the various pro-America forces in Australia coordinate and choose things to do, so nice to see you give more details. I had of course heard of the five eyes.

      I wouldnt expect any American army officers to get involved, though I could imagine the American ambassador whispering a few suggestions in the right ears. I could see a few ASIO and IPA people writing about the case, and then a few politicians siding up with Drew (this has already happened). Its if the press gets enough into swing that the bigger fish (a government minister?) start to push some levers.

      UQ management is on very thin ice here.

  4. paul frijters says:

    I might write a whole post on this, but just a quick update on developments:

    we’ve pretty much followed the script above. The pro-American lobby has taken an interest, with several politicians in Australia and the US speaking out on behalf of Drew and openly condemning UQ management, Peter Hoj in particular. Journalists around the world are now talking about the scandal of the suspension of Drew Pavlou because of his anti-Party activities. The newspapers covering it in such a light now include le Figaro in France, the Washington Post, the New York Times, Fox News, Greek news, the UK daily mirror, and nearly all newspapers in Australia except the Brisbane Times.

    The situation exploded today because of the announced decision to suspend Drew for 2 years, which would mean his de facto expulsion from the UQ Senate and from his studies at UQ. It will be a major news item around Australia and the world for days to come.

    This situation is now untenable for UQ management because they have lost all control of the narrative. They are now openly and widely seen as sell-outs to the Chinese communist party, abusing their positions to silence an outspoken defender of human rights. That is a very toxic picture for them, particularly since my own case (see post) shows they have been fast and loose with human rights before. But this time the condemnation is too massive to ignore and wish away.

    The question is now less whether they will lose, but how big the loss is to UQ management, and what steps they will take eventually to regain an academic reputation for UQ. This seems to have been realised today by the UQ Chancellor Peter Varghese who has hitherto run a vigorous anti-Drew line, with a newspaper article just last week warning readers not to be too sympathetic towards him, hinting he’d get his come-uppance.

    Well, in a private statement today, ie not speaking on behalf of the university but on his own behalf, Peter Varghese is now disowning the disciplinary process he and Hoj started and have egged on. He is pretending the two of them had nothing to do with it and that he finds the punishment harsh, which is of course a blatant lie: they paid Minter Ellisson to provide pro-expulsion advice on behalf of UQ management during the Drew Pavlou! This lie is a big development though because it means there is enough pressure to make Varghese willing to break ranks and to sound the retreat.

    Also interesting is the write-up of this retreat in the Age, which was copied in the Brisbane Times. Those newspapers, mouth pieces for the Brisbane business and political elites, have so far tried to ignore the case and been on the side of UQ management, mumbling about commercial pressures. Their recent article, the timing of which suggests a coordinated last-minute attempt at damage control, now applauds the breaking rank by Varghese. It signals this will be the next narrative the university and the Brisbane elites will try, ie “UQ management is taking an interest and will sort out this unfortunate misunderstanding amicably”. Its a totally false narrative, obviously, and it wont stick because it is so obvious, but more importantly it tells you the Brisbane politicians have decided they cannot totally ignore this and they cant be seen to punish Drew. They will have forced Varghese to back-track.

    So UQ management will in some way back track. And then they will need to disown the Chinese consulate, at least in the visuals. That’s why I wouldn’t be surprised if they would soon announce they wont re-new the Confucius Institute stay on campus and will change the arrangements around the courses controlled by that institute, etc. They will basically give in to the pressure to be in the American camp and resist on-campus propaganda by pro-Party Chinese activists. They will probably try and explain this to the Consulate in such a way as not to lose too many Chinese students.

    So whilst he got disheartening news today in terms of his studies, the wind is blowing firmly in Drew’s favour. They made him a martyr and strong forces are rallying behind him, whilst those who condemned him now stand exposed and in fear, already in full retreat.

    I can see a UQ administration putting up a statue of Drew Pavlou in 10 years time in center court, I really can.

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