Maintaining the high ground: What Drew Pavlou can tell us about Australia’s attitudes to the CCP

Dissecting the controversial UQ student's behaviour in the context of rising sinophobia

Chinese Communist Party (CCP) influence in Australian universities has been a recurrent news item for the past year. Indeed, as a narrative, it is neatly situated beside fears of insidious Chinese technology and mounting concern with Xi Jingping’s despotic approach to Chinese domestic policy. The cumulative effect of which is a news cycle that positions China, and by unfortunate extension, Chinese people, as a clear and present danger to Australia. This is a problem.

Of course, it would be egregious to suggest that the CCP’s efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy or the systemic persecution of China’s ethnic Uyghur population were the fabrications of a paranoid Australian media. Rather, they represent grave threats to human rights and are wholly deserving of international opprobrium. However, if we are to contribute meaningfully to combat the human rights abuses of the CCP, we must also interrogate our own methods of protest – ensuring that they are neither prejudiced nor smokescreens beneath which hate groups validate their anti-Asian agendas.  

Enter Drew Pavlou — erstwhile University of Queensland Senator, Philosophy student, and arguably Australia’s most notable anti-CCP activist. In July 2019, Mr Pavlou attracted widespread media coverage due to his vociferous attacks on the Chinese Communist Party and their close association to the university through the campus Confucius Institute. Since then, he has been involved in an acrimonious feud with the University of Queensland, one that has culminated in his expulsion, in a move that Pavlou alleges to be politically motivated.

Disappointingly, Pavlou’s particular brand of protest has denied students what could have been a watershed moment for free speech on campus. After all, the university has long been a training ground for the nation’s nascent intelligentsia to mobilise against the maladies of the time. However, since at least the 1960’s – the apogee of anti-war demonstrations in Australia — expulsion has been a political expedient for tertiary institutions to silence dissenting opinion. And Pavlou, ostensibly the victim of such a draconian practice was provided with the perfect platform to shine a spotlight on this enduring form of institutional suppression. Alas, he squandered his opportunity.

Whereas Financial Review correspondent, Aaron Patrick may optimistically declare that Mr Pavlou has, “unified the conservative media and human rights establishment”, the latter’s objectionable tactics have alienated him from many potential sources of solidarity. Instead, he has endeared himself to the intolerant right. A testament to which is Pavlou’s recent appearance alongside former 2GB shock jock and unrepentant racist, Alan Jones. A man whose interest in free speech only extends insofar as his ability to use racial pejoratives at will. Sadly, for Drew Pavlou, his willingness to flirt with racism deprives his expulsion of moral weight. He transformed the bi-partisan issue of human rights and free speech into the deeply partisan matter of anti-political correctness. Now, I fear his passion for the liberation of Hong Kong may be wasted, dog-whistling into the abyss of impotent conservative anger.

While organising protests against undue CCP interference and Chinese human rights abuses is both commendable, and indeed essential to a robust campus ecosystem of political engagement and social justice. However, the self-described “left-wing” Pavlou resorted to weaponising deeply troubling orientalist tropes in his censure of the University of Queensland’s relationship with China. When, in March of this year, Mr Pavlou posted a picture to social media of himself inside the Universities Confucius Institute — wearing a hazmat suit and warning that the site was a “biohazard risk”.

 Here, through the tacit association Pavlou establishes between Asia and disease, he is invoking the colonial legacy of a “Yellow Peril” — the West’s fear of an Asiatic-other. Indeed, in an interview with the Washington Post, medical anthropologist Monica Schoch-Spana notes that “fixing blame [for] a contagious disease on outsiders” is a recurring motif in the west. One that is demonstrative of a history of racial essentialism and colonialism, wherein the negative attributes of disease, uncleanliness and squalor are conferred to denigrate a non-white ‘Other’. Drew Pavlou defended his behaviour, arguing – in a line that was parroted by Murdoch rag, The Australian – that he was referring to the ‘virus’ of Chinese influence in Australian universities. However, even this language is leaden with racialist overtones.

Unfortunately for Mr Pavlou, his cheap piece of incendiary political theatre is denuded of the nuance necessary to simultaneously critique a government while sparing a people from racial abuse. Instead, it both reflects what is perhaps an unconscious eagerness to racialise our methods of protest and explains Drew’s popularity in conservative circles.

To understand this relationship, it is first imperative to understand its history. In Professor David Walker’s seminal 1991 book, Anxious Nation, he argued that Australia’s relationship with Asia had been typified by immense anxiety due to Australia’s geographical isolation, comparatively small population and an unstable national identity. In Chapter 9, Walker addresses the ‘invasion narrative’, a Victorian-era literary genre wherein untrustworthy and seditious ‘Asian hordes’ are depicted as posing an existential threat to the ‘racial-integrity’ of Australia. Importantly, the invasion narratives described by Walker — like Mr Pavlou’s ill-conceived coronavirus stunt — do not delineate between Asian people and their respective governments. Rather, they ascribe to a contemptible degree of essentialism to vilify Asian people en masse. A trend which is eerily analogous to the extant media discourse on China, with the ABC reporting that Chinese Australian’s increasingly feel as though they are being targeted as a consequence of escalating antipathy towards the Chinese Communist Party.

More than anything, this reflects growing racial anxiety and a reawakening of an uncomfortable history of anti-Asian discrimination. It is alt-right and conservative groups, and their preoccupation with white replacement and the primacy of western civilisation, where this anxiety is most apparent. Thus, it is hardly surprising that Drew Pavlou, despite his fulminations, would find affirmation in the right-wing political sphere. His firebrand approach to demonstrating and willingness to enact orientalist stereotypes position him as a perfect candidate for co-option by the right. He is an ideal conduit through which these groups can sublimate their more blatantly racist ideologies, while they continue their pernicious machinations beneath Drew’s anti-CCP banner. Finally, and perhaps most ignominiously for Drew Pavlou, unless he reevaluates his methods of protest, he risks becoming a ‘useful idiot’ to a movement with little regard for the human rights he so admirably defends.

Hopefully, Pavlou will realise that he has been complicit in promoting the same deadly zero-sum thinking that underpins attacks on Asian-Australian’s due to fear of the Chinese Communist Party, or coronavirus concerns. The same inimical non-logic that has rationalised the most heinous policies throughout history — from the White Australia Policy to the internment of Japanese Americans during World War Two, or the systemic persecution of Muslims engendered by the War on Terror. So, if we are to maintain the high road in our struggle against the CCP — a deeply precarious position due to our own history of imperialism and genocide, we cannot afford to ally ourselves, or otherwise endorse the tactics of the basest elements of the ideological sphere.

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