Activism, Education, Human Rights, Recommended

The Free-Speech Problem on Australian Campuses Is More CCP than SJW

For years now, Australia’s conservative media have been awash with dark forebodings about the threat that leftist radicals pose to free speech on campuses. The Institute of Public Affairs, a right-wing think tank, published an audit of free speech in 2018 that found a staggering 83% of Australian universities are actively hostile to free speech. My personal experience suggests that such fears are exaggerated by those seeking to import an American-style culture war into Australia.

I’m a third-year undergraduate student at the University of Queensland, and I’ve never encountered the kind of ultra-leftist “social-justice warrior” types that apparently make sport out of persecuting conservatives. In truth, the vast majority of students on campus are depressingly apathetic, apolitical and disengaged.

No, the real threat to freedom of speech that I’ve observed originates with a corporatized university administration that relies heavily on external sources for funding—and so is inclined to discourage views that may irk those controlling the purse strings. This is reflected in the way Australia’s universities are responding to student criticisms of the Chinese Communist Party.

After years of austerity measures implemented by conservative governments, Australia’s publicly-funded higher-education sector is barely solvent. Our universities have responded to these cuts by extracting hundreds of millions of dollars annually from often under-prepared and socially vulnerable international students. Many of these students come from mainland (i.e. communist) China. University administrators know the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is a bad-faith partner. Offend Chinese state sensibilities, and Beijing might just close the taps on this lucrative student stream.

Surely, principled administrators would have the gumption to resist such pressures, right? Not so much. The University of Sydney is perhaps Australia’s most prestigious university. Yet it put a temporary block on Jetsun Jamphel Ngawang Lobsang Yeshe Tenzin Gyatso—better known as the 14th Dalai Lama—when he was scheduled to speak on campus in 2013. (The university reversed course after an outcry.) University of Sydney also is one of a dozen Australian schools that host co-called “Confucius Institutes,” which are nominally dedicated to teaching Chinese language and culture, but which a former Communist Party official flatly admitted to be “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.”

A similar pattern is reasserting itself amid news of clashes between student protestors and police in Hong Kong, this time at the University of Queensland, a global top-fifty research university situated on a leafy bend of the Brisbane River. The school has threatened, harassed and bullied students who are vocal in their criticism of the university’s close ties to the Chinese state. I know, because I am one of those students.

It started back in July, after my hometown university appointed China’s Brisbane Consul, General Xu Jie, to an honorary professorship. Along with a group of fellow students, I hosted a peaceful sit-in at UQ’s Great Court during orientation week, the busiest time of year on campus. We led chants against the administration, and denounced the school for effectively working with the CCP while it locks up and persecutes legions of Uyghur Muslims, and savages Hong Kong protesters. It was during this peaceful demonstration that we were assaulted by a co-ordinated group of pro-Beijing supporters. At one point, a thug wearing a mask depicting skeletal teeth snuck up behind me and struck me. The intent was clearly to silence criticism of the CCP through violence.

Dr. Xu (as he is described in the Australian media) denounced the protest as a form of “anti-China separatist activit[y].” He also declared that “a small number of people with ulterior motives” had “caus[ed] indignation and protests from overseas Chinese students of the mainland and Hong Kong. The Consulate-General regards highly the importance of the safety of the overseas Chinese students and affirms the self-motivated patriotic behaviour of the overseas Chinese students.”

Meanwhile, the Chinese state-run publication Global Times identified me by name under the headline “Chinese consulate in Australia praises patriotic students for counter-protest against separatists” (these would be the same “patriotic students” who attacked me). Along with other China critics, I was viciously trolled on social media, with one Instagram user instructing me that he would hire an assassin to kill members of my family.

Following this incident, I launched a law suit against Xu Jie, to compel him to apologize and retract his comments. But UQ’s response was to crack down on Dr. Xu’s campus critics. Which is perhaps not surprising when you consider that UQ’s Vice-Chancellor, Peter Høj, was until recently a consultant to the headquarters of the Confucius Institute (which has co-funded credit-bearing courses at UQ, including one called “China in a Changing World”). At one point, school officials sent out a survey with questions such as “Thinking about the situation at UQ, do you view the Hong Kong protests as giving China a bad name for no good reason [and] unfairly criticizing China?”

When we resolved to hold a second protest on July 31, the university pressured us to cancel the event—even calling me out personally in a July 25 crisis meeting, where UQ Deputy Vice-Chancellor Joanne Wright instructed Student Union leaders to block my upcoming event. On July 26, a UQ official sent me an email requesting I attend a disciplinary meeting for ostensibly unrelated matters. The meeting was to take place on July 31. How convenient.

When it became clear UQ could not stop the protest from going ahead, the administration called me and two other student-protest organisers—Ji Davis and Maddy Taylor—into a security meeting, where we were given a list of conditions to comply with if the protest were to go ahead. One was that we move the protest from the Great Court, the symbolic heart of the university and the busiest place on campus, to a non-descript location behind a car park. This would be the specially designated “Free Speech Zone’’ for the day. UQ’s Head of Property and Facilities then made what I interpreted as a veiled threat to our future enrolment, telling us “we like you being students at the university and want this to continue into the future.’’ After the meeting, the same official sent an email informing me that the protest would be dispersed if we held it on the Great Court.

Undeterred, we went ahead with the protest on July 31, holding it in the Great Court. Hundreds of students attended, as did protestors affiliated with Falun Gong, and Brisbane’s Tibetan and Hong Kong communities. It was conducted peacefully. And predictably, the university blinked first. Maybe someone inside the administration came to the realization that instructing police to haul away hundreds of peacefully demonstrating students criticising the university wouldn’t provide the best look for the assembled media.

Sadly, our protest didn’t accomplish much. To this day, Xu Jie remains listed as a professor on UQ’s website despite his implicit endorsement of violence against students, and his ongoing status as China’s Consul-General in Brisbane. Heng Tao Shen, who helped build the totalitarian surveillance architecture used by the Chinese government to monitor Uighur Muslims, also holds an honorary professorship at UQ. In fact, he developed this technology while working at UQ with government funding.

Writing in October, a Financial Review columnist described me as “the human manifestation of an extraordinarily delicate balance Australian universities have to strike between their financial interests and social and intellectual responsibilities.” That’s a euphemistic way of saying that our universities must choose between free speech and academic integrity, or moneyed interests. The fact that UQ and other universities even have to make such a decision shows what happens when public institutions are stripped of the resources they need to operate. They’ll get the money somewhere, and society will pay the price in a currency more dear than dollars and cents.


Drew Pavlou is a student at the University of Queensland, recently elected to the UQ Senate. He Tweets at @DrewPavlou

Featured image: The author, leading a protest at University of Queensland. 


  1. The fact that UQ and other universities even have to make such a decision shows what happens when public institutions are stripped of the resources they need to operate.

    It’ll be always so: public institutions need all resources to operate.

  2. So, blame the conservatives? I don’t have a good bead on what goes on in Australian academia. But in the U.S., they’ll raise tuition, cut back on janitorial services and plead poverty, but they won’t fire one dang administrator. Sorry. But until universities can finally remember why they exist (to teach), and that they do not exist to give jobs to otherwise unemployable, overeducated administrative bureaucrats, i have no sympathy when budgets get cut.

  3. Infuriating article, and an important reminder that while SJWs are essentially just oversized children throwing tantrums, the CCP is no joke. They are the real threat to human rights and world peace, in a way the infantile SJWs and incompetent Islamists could only dream of being. Kudos to the author and all the other students involved in holding University of Queensland responsible for collaborating with literal fascists.

    A couple of quibbles with the author’s take, though:

    This seems like a funny way of saying that Australian universities have become degree mills for wealthy Chinese students. It seems odd to frame the students as victims when they are beneficiaries of lower standards, which allows them to have a significant leg up when they go back to China, or a fast track to permanent residency if they stay in Australia.

    The implication that conservatives are to blame for this because universities chose to chase Chinese dollars to finance a massive expansion in their administration staff when they should have been cutting such unnecessary expenses is absurd.

  4. I believe Drew Pavlou is the only Quillette author I’ve actually met in person - I met him for about thirty seconds once, on the UQ campus, back when democracy for Hong Kong suddenly became an issue, and walls of posters for and against the demonstrators there, sprang up around the student union. Hello Drew!

    However, I first heard of him a few months before that, when an article from a political journal he co-edits, “The Queenslander”, came to my attention. And I was quietly horrified, because it seemed to be a living example of a particularly insidious leftist stereotype - namely, trash your heritage, teach you to hate it, and then pass itself off as the true representative of your community or people. In this case, it was an attack on Queensland’s longest-serving premier - concluding that he was a “tyrant” whose grave should be salted, a “terrorist who … brutalised our great state”; all this in a webzine calling itself “The Queenslander”.

    So that was my introduction to Drew. Then he showed up in the middle of UQ’s China controversy, made it into domestic and international media, was elected as a student representative on UQ’s Senate, and now here he is in Quillette - all at the age of twenty.

    Moreover, his contribution here, is the umpteenth article carried by Quillette, talking about the alleged danger that China poses to human freedom; the genre of Quillette article which, more than any other, galvanizes me to respond.

    Let me therefore muse aloud, about what might be going on here.

    Drew is a student politician. Student politicians don’t get much respect, but many of them go on to become actual politicians. I would identify Drew’s own affiliation, not so tentatively, as Labor Party, progressive left.

    I feel that both he, and Quillette, must be receiving the attention, and possibly the support, of western deep-state elements who have decided to regard China as a rival of the west, whose influence must be exposed and minimized.

    About their receiving the attention of such people, I think there can be no question. If you’re an Australian national-security figure who thinks China has subverted Australian politics, of course you’re going to pay attention to this young man whose anti-CCP campaign has been noticed in China itself, and regard him as a potential patriotic asset, whatever you think of his political beliefs.

    Similarly, if you are an American opinion-maker wanting to prepare the west for a long struggle with China, part of your job is to track how China is being portrayed in western media, and Quillette has to stand out for the Paul Revere stance that many of its contributors have been taking.

    So Drew and Quillette have undoubtedly been noticed by some among the west’s China hawks (and also by whoever it is in China, that tracks western representations of China, especially hostile representations). The more vexing question is whether they are already being encouraged, or even used, by such forces. Is there a China hawk within the Labor Party, nudging Drew to continue his path? Does the Quillette editorial board have friends in western intelligence, who are pleased to see the warnings about China maintained?

    I do not deny that the western elite is divided on this issue, that there must also be counter-pressure from people who want critics of China to stop rocking the boat. Nonetheless, I find it impossible to view this article in isolation from the existence of those factions of the national-security and policy-making elites who would approve its message.

    As a postscript, let me add that a month ago in “The Queenslander”, Drew wrote about meeting a Chinese student, Hubert, who takes the other side in the Chinese political debate, in order to better understand each other. I think my sympathies would be more with Hubert, but I still appreciate that he had a go at dialogue.

  5. All evaluations can be associated with some evil people (or people given to do evil acts).

    I find your watchfulness commendable (& your observation about Pavlou being a politician astute), but so far you haven’t provided any evidence of Pavlou being the puppet (or patsy) of the Five Eyes Deep State. Just because he knocks the CCP he isn’t necessarily part & parcel of some anti-Chinese cabal. These charges require independent evidence.

  6. After years of austerity measures implemented by conservative governments, Australia’s publicly-funded higher-education sector is barely solvent.

    How about cutting expenses?

  7. “a corporatized university administration that relies heavily on external sources for funding—and so is inclined to discourage views that may irk those controlling the purse strings.”

    It concords with my GCT that Social Justice is just a smokescreen and a diversionary tactic, and the Warriors merely useful idiots. Follow the money. Big Money and folks like the CCP are in charge of the universities and to the extent that Western civilization is being canceled, well, cui bono?

    It is a no-brainer that the Chinese want to cancel the civilization of their rivals and who better to do the work than SJ zealots who will mostly work for just the virtue-signaling value of it? Rebellion is always chique, no? How cost-effective to just gently help a civilization destroy itself?

    But global capital hates Western civ too, with it’s corrupt notions of the public good and doing unto others. For half a century or more, things went really strange, with ordinary folks keeping a shockingly large fraction of the wealth they created. The public sphere, supported by taxation – even taxation of the rich – became status quo. This has largely been corrected since the 80’s but much more work needs to be done. Greed is good, and the world’s billionaires are very, very good and plan to be even gooder in the future.

    BTW, I heard that Darwin is now owned by the Chinese and that Oz is on track to become the first formerly Western country to become a wholly owned subsidiary of the CCP.

  8. “Does the Quillette editorial board have friends in western intelligence, who are pleased to see the warnings about China maintained?”

    Do you have friends in Chinese intelligence, who are pleased to see your warnings about Drew Pavlou and Western intelligence?

  9. Great to see this problem getting international attention, and I thought I’d add my analysis of why we’ve ended up in this situation.

    In short, it’s largely the fault of two separate governments and their approaches to higher education.

    Things started veering off course for Australian higher education when in the late 2000s the left leaning Labor government removed university enrolment caps. The rationale for this was the belief that Australia needed more tertiary educated professionals in the future, since there was evidence that university graduates earned more during their careers. This ignored the obvious question of whether university degrees would hold the same value if everyone in the country could obtain one, but nonetheless this allowed Australia’s largely autonomous, corporatised universities to greatly expand their programs and entice more students to attending their campuses.

    While there were efforts to recruit more domestic students (largely by dropping entrance requirements), it became clear that the most lucrative market was international students. Coupled with a large boost in migration during this time, we saw a large influx of Chinese students and the beginning of pressure to accommodate their needs and wants (ie give them degrees even if they don’t study or speak English, keep quiet about Chinese human rights violations).

    In 2013 the Coalition conservative government was elected, and remains in power today. They started off sensibly by reimposing a cap on enrolment numbers, which in theory would stop the decline in education standards as universities kept chasing wholly unqualified students to grow their income. However the government, under the guise of returning to budget surplus, cut tertiary funding by billions of dollars and basically told the universities to work out the savings themselves.

    Now, in a university environment infested by unnecessary and expensive administration, you would think that the obvious solution would be to cut back on these positions and return the focus to high quality education.

    We’ll, that’s not how corporatist, autonomous institutions work, especially when there’s huge competitive pressure to become bigger universities, rather than better but smaller centres of excellence. So universities have continued growing their administrations (at the expense of the academics, large numbers of now in precarious temporary employment), and to make up for the shortfall imposed by the government they have … wait for it … gone cap in hand to the international student sector.

    And now we’re in a situation where education standards are still declining, but foreign powers (aka China) have realised that they can exploit the universities for their own soft power gains.

    The Coalition have done the right thing by calling out China and the need for free speech on campuses, but they won’t provide the funding to remove the CCP influence. Nor will they legislate to take back control of universities so that they are run like education institutes, not public companies obsessed with limitless growth.

    Meanwhile Labor are making the right calls about the lack of public funding for universities, but they remain obsessed with the idea of no-cap enrolments which only lead to declining education standards. They’re also in a tricky bind with China (the party, being popular amongst migrants, have long been supportive of improved relations with mainland China), with a number of important party figures demanding that we embrace China as the new 21st century global power. Even if this embrace is less of a mutual friendship and more Australia kowtowing to the communists in return for them buying our coal.

    So yeah, Australia is going to have a fun few years ahead dealing with the nefarious influence of the CCP, with neither major party showing much in the way of effective response to this major problem…

  10. Administrators are hired in the hopes that they can alleviate the problem faculty face in trying to teach hordes of unprepared freshmen how to grow up and accept responsibility for their lives. This is a recent phenomena. It didn’t exist 20 years ago. Administrative costs now exceed instruction costs at some universities.

  11. A couple of academic friends of mine estimate that the ratio of administrators to academics is 5 to 1. Why any institution could possibly need that many people signing off the paperwork is beyond me, and is a sign that universities are have grossly overstepped their mandate to provide higher education, or are grossly incompetent at meeting this fundamental goal. Possibly both

  12. Thanks @Bureaucrat for you two comments above. The 5:1 ration is frightening. I guess some of it is for marketing, advertising campaigns and fund raising.

    @mitchellporter, what you wrote could be seen as a defense of the Chinese Communist Party dictatorship.

    China is a huge and industrious country. It is practically impossible to buy many classes of goods, especially electronic components and finished products, which are not been made in China.

    We (Australia and other Western democracies) need to trade with them and I hope that this trade and cultural interchange - tourism in both directions and education of Chinese people in the West will enable the Chinese people to guide their country towards a better system of government than the current dictatorship.

    If you criticise those, like Drew Pavlou, who criticise the CCP and its dictatorship of a nuclear-armed country, which does interfere with the West, do you have any criticisms of the CCP and so any suggestions about how the Chinese system of government might be improved?

    For instance, do you support CCP claims to mainland sovereignty over Taiwan?

    Do you support the Chinese consul in Brisbane, apparently (according to Drew’s account) supporting those who assaulted him?

    “. . . western deep-state elements who have decided to regard China as a rival of the west, whose influence must be exposed and minimized.” Of course China is a rival - in terms of trade and political influence. I am not arguing that all the West’s approach to trade, and foreign policy is ideal. However, Western countries are democracies win which citizens have much greater freedom of speech and communication than do Chinese citizens.

    Since it is evident the CCP wants to silence critics located in Western countries, it is interfering in our countries and threatening our own freedoms. Does this concern you?

    If so, can you nominate critics of the CCP dictatorship who do a better job than Drew Pavlou? I don’t know anything about him other than this article, which seemed good to me.

  13. @RW

    “If you criticise those, like Drew Pavlou, who criticise the CCP and its dictatorship of a nuclear-armed country, which does interfere with the West, do you have any criticisms of the CCP and so any suggestions about how the Chinese system of government might be improved?”

    I respectfully disagree with this linkage. Mr. Pavlou claims China’s University influence increased because of conservative austerity measures. This type of argument is far to common by proponents of big government. Claims of planes crashing because of budget cuts, cancer caused by legislation being voted down and tax cuts leading to poisoned water and mass extinctions. It is rather a silly non sequitur. If the bank turns down my loan request, that does not force me to rob liquor stores. It is possible to criticize both Mr. Pavlou and communist China.

  14. As we usually don’t detect the accent of our peers, at least those who have lived their entire life in our local, it is also difficult to see the bias and pressure placed on those to conform to your ideology when you are in the majority. I would ask the author to inquire with those on campus who disagree with the left rather than rely only on his own experience. While the author’s minimizing persecution by the left raises my antenna, I don’t think it has to be an either/or SJW leftists or CCP, both can be corrupting.

    Here in the States there has also been questions of Saudi influence at some universities. While the amounts may seem relatively trivial, they are nevertheless require loyalty to the source if they are to continue. While universities can take the dangdest positions on issues and still receive alumni support, try straying to far into opposition of China or Saudi Arabia and see how quickly that funding evaporates. Small amounts can have an outsized influence.

  15. Wow, misleading title. Student loans incurred at for-profit institutions is roughly 20% of the 1.5 Trillion. Yes there is a higher rate of debt incurred at for-profit colleges but not nearly to an extent to justify it as a “leading cause”, the title amounts to agitprop.

    The cost of an education has become de-coupled from its worth and loan guarantees by the government is a “leading cause” of the problem. Rather than looking to for-profit colleges we get the government back out of the student loan business, treat student loans like other borrowing and re-enable escape by bankruptcy, and make the institutions bear about 50% of cost the default whether they be for-profit or non-profit. It would be a huge incentive to universities to both keep costs down and make sure the education was actually beneficial to the student.

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