The People’s Republic of Queensland

The dubious conduct of an Australian university with Chinese ties shows the CCP’s long reach abroad.

Global View  by Walter Russell Mead  May 21, 2020

The entrance to the University of Queensland’s St Lucia Campus in Brisbane, Australia.


The University of Queensland is what Australians call a “sandstone university,” something like the American Ivy League in prestige. Queensland consistently appears on lists of the world’s 100 best universities and is widely seen as one of the top three in Australia.

Lately, however, its cozy relationship with China has ignited a firestorm. Questions have been asked in Australia’s Parliament, and stories in the country’s leading newspapers and on its public television network have raked administrators over the coals. A Journal news story offers an overview of the scandal.

Queensland’s purgatory began last July during a peaceful student demonstration in support of Hong Kongers protesting for democracy and in solidarity with persecuted Uighurs in Xinjiang. The demonstrators were set upon by what observers said was a well-organized group of about 300 students and nonstudents, many shouting slogans in Chinese. As some filmed the rally, counterdemonstrators snatched megaphones from the pro-Hong Kong and pro-Uighur protesters and sought to break up the rally. Punches were thrown.

Xu Jie, China’s consul general in Brisbane, commended the counter-demonstrators for their “acts of patriotism,” while blaming the pro-Hong Kong students for “igniting anger and sparking protests from Chinese students.” In a highly unusual step, Australian Foreign Minister Marise Payne warned all foreign diplomats in Australia to respect the rights of free speech and peaceful protest. Amid all this, the press reported that Mr. Xu had recently been appointed an adjunct professor at the university.

About a week later, the Sydney Morning Herald reported that Chinese officials had visited the mother of one of the students at the demonstration—she lives in China—and that she then told her son that his safety could only be guaranteed if he stopped his “anti-China rhetoric” and stayed away from other protests.

The story gets worse. In October one student who led the Hong Kong/Xinjiang demonstration sought a court order against Mr. Xu, alleging that the consul-general’s rhetoric was endangering his life. The student, 20-year-old Drew Pavlou, ran successfully to become the student representative on the university senate to gain greater visibility for his China protests. He carried on a program of activism including stunts like posting a “Covid-19 Biohazard” warning in front of the university’s Confucius Institute—the local branch of a Beijing-funded “soft power” program offering courses in Chinese language and culture. Concerned about the institutes’ tight links with the Chinese government, U.S. legislators banned universities who host Confucius Institutes from receiving federal language-training funds in 2019. Even before then, many U.S. schools severed their links with the program over the same worries.

But keeping Beijing happy is essential to the Queensland business model, and hosting a Confucius Institute is part of the package. Roughly 20% of the university’s students last fall were from China,

and international students pay much higher tuition than Australians. Peter Høj, Queensland’s vice chancellor, had received a performance bonus of roughly US$130,000 in part because of his success in strengthening the university’s relations with China in ways that supported student recruitment.

Mr. Høj was committed. He not only allowed a Confucius Institute to be established on campus; he served for several years as an unpaid consultant to the Confucius Institute’s international board. At least one course jointly funded by the institute and Queensland highlighted China’s emerging world leadership in, among other topics, counterterrorism, human rights and the prevention of mass atrocities.

It was apparently intolerable that a student insulted an institution so august. The university compiled a 186-page dossier of Mr. Pavlou’s alleged misdoings, and summoned him to a hearing at which he faces possible expulsion. The charges, according to those who’ve seen the confidential document, either try to make trivial comments by Mr. Pavlou look sinister or attempt to infringe on his right to peaceful protest.

On Wednesday, Mr. Pavlou and his lawyer walked out of the disciplinary hearing, claiming the university was failing to follow its own procedures. The university denied these charges in a statement to the press.

Queensland’s investigative zeal is embarrassingly selective. Administrators don’t seem to have spent much time, if any, investigating the students who disrupted the protest last July. Was there a link between the Confucius Institute or the Chinese Consulate and the organized group that broke up a peaceful protest? How did the Chinese police know to visit a Queensland student’s family? Is there a Chinese effort to monitor and intimidate Chinese students abroad? Do Queensland students critical of Beijing face additional threats? That it somehow seemed more important to comb through Mr. Pavlou’s social-media posts than to devote major resources to questions like these is the measure of how badly the administration has lost its way.

The university has stoutly denied wrongdoing at every point. It asserts that the relationship with the Chinese Consulate and the Confucius Institute is entirely proper, that Mr. Pavlou’s disciplinary case has nothing to do with free speech, and that the information about Mr. Høj’s bonus released in the Australian Senate was partial and misleading. As Queensland chancellor Peter Varghese—a distinguished public servant with impeccable credentials in the Australian security establishment—summarizes the university’s position: “Boycotting China is not a sensible option. What we need is clear-eyed engagement which serves our interests and is faithful to our values.”

Mr. Varghese isn’t wrong about that, and Queensland isn’t wrong to want Chinese students. The value of having them on campus goes well beyond money. They bring different and challenging perspectives that other students need to encounter.

But the lesson for U.S. college presidents and trustees should be clear: The moral and reputational damage of mishandling a relationship with China can be ruinous. Open debate about topics like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang and Tibet shouldn’t be suppressed simply because a foreign government objects. And if any students are to be expelled for violations of university standards, it shouldn’t be peaceful protesters, but conscious agents of a foreign police state who abuse their university status to snoop on their peers.





Leave a Reply

Search All Posts