Academic Freedom, Criticism of China and Racism

Guest article by Dr Gerald Roche

Drew Pavlou is waiting for a decision that will change his life. Very soon, maybe today, he will know if the University of Queensland, where he studies, is going to expel him. But far more than one student’s future hangs in the balance: this decision will also potentially have profound impacts on the future of free speech in this country.

There are a number of important issues and competing rights tangled together. Some media coverage and commentary have approached the situation in an unhelpful manner. That is, in a way that conflated different issues and fails to properly inform the public. The most important distinction that needs to be drawn is between criticism of countries’ policies, which free speech should protect in general, and which it is vital academic freedom protects in universities, and attacks on people which can cross the line into bullying, harassment and racism.

Universities must protect academic freedom, but to do so, they also need to protect their people from attacks and abuse. Attacking ideas is fine, attacking people is not.

The Tweet that started it all

I know about Drew Pavlou’s situation, because I was there when these events were set in motion, when I made a formal complaint against him on January 6th this year.

My complaint related to this tweet:

I consider this a clear example of cyber abuse, which the Australian eSafety Commissioner defines as: “behaviour that uses technology to threaten, intimidate, harass or humiliate someone — with the intent to hurt them socially, psychologically or even physically.” There is clear and specific intent to cause psychological harm here, targeted at a specific person. The threat shows callous disregard for the instructor’s mental health.

Pavlou claims it was a joke.

Imagining Pavlou’s potential instructor reading his initial threat, it’s not clear how they would know it was an attempt at humor. It’s not clear why they would feel anything but intimidated.

I registered a formal complaint against the tweet and encouraged others to do so.

Pavlou began harassing me.

He taunted me, asking, “Have I been impeached yet?” and, claiming that he was “untouchable,” even encouraged “as many people as possible” to report him. The tweet demonstrates a typical reaction of online trolls who view the internet as a place where anything goes, a place where others can be attacked with impunity.

Online leadership of the cyber mob

The problems with this case go beyond a single incident of cyber abuse, or my harassment. I see the broader issue clearly whenever Pavlou mentions me on Twitter, and his followers are energised into action.

Although Pavlou claims to be progressive, many of his supporters, such as Pauline Hanson, are not. The accounts that attack me every time Pavlou mentions me are sometimes openly racist (such as the account below, now deleted). More often they’re “anti-progressive”, accusing me of being ‘overly woke’, a ‘dirty’ academic, or beholden to ‘metaphysical anti-racism’ (whatever that is). Attacks on those opposing racism are deliberate attempts to create room for racism and increase its normalization online, and are a common tactic of the alt-right and a significant enabler of racism.

This brings us to the broader problem of Pavlou’s “dog-whistle” approach to politics. Whether or not Pavlou intends to incite racism is actually irrelevant. As philosopher Jennifer Saul has pointed out in her study of how political dog-whistles work, they operate regardless of their speaker’s intentions. Whether intended or not, seeing the effect, there is a choice to take more care with future messages and avoid language that is likely to stir up others (the responsible approach for someone at university), or to embrace the role of leading an online mob.

Legitimate criticism vs racism

Pavlou seems unaware of the line between legitimate criticism of the Chinese Communist Party and its laws and policies, and statements which instead attack Chinese people on the basis of their nationality / ethnicity. Take, for example, a poll he created on Facebook which asks people what they prefer, on the one side freedom of speech to discuss the 1989 Tiananmen massacre, or on the other, being allowed to become wealthy and able to afford studying in Australia.

At one level the poll is a legitimate criticism of the CPP, both over the Tiananmen massacre and over its policies today which prevent the massacre being discussed by Chinese nationals who want to remain in good standing with the CCP and therefore gain the benefits which would enable them to attain an overseas education. At another level, the post imputes that the Chinese students who come to Australia are collectively wealthy, selfish, and lazy. That is not a criticism of policy but an attack on a group of people based on their nationality.

Another inability to recognise that line between leigtimate cricitism and racism can be seen in an image he posted on Twitter on August 29th, 2019. The images uses an ‘ungrammatical’ ‘mock Asian’ voice to portray UQ Vice-Chancellor Peter Høj as ‘Chinese’ and subservient to China. A concern over the relationship between a university and a foreign government is a legitimate things to question. The use of the mock Asian voice is reminiscent of people dressing up in blackface and not only crosses a line, but was entirely unnecessary to make the political point.

A more extreme real world example is that after anti-Asian racism began surging in Australia, Pavlou turned up at the Confucius Institute wearing a biohazard suit. He tapped in to, and bolstered, narratives that racialize and ethnicize COVID-19, portraying Asians as sources of disease. Academic freedom means those in our universities, both staff and students, enjoy a high level of free speech. It also means they have a higher level of ethical responsibility to avoid harm to people and society. This stunt was more than a mere dog whistle, it was a full embrace of rising racism in a manner designed to gain attention at the cost of harm to the community.

How should we talk about China?

Media outlets from the Washington Post to the Guardian have portrayed Pavlou’s case as an issue of free speech: a David and Goliath battle of a young, innocent student battling an evil empire. And certainly Pavlou has spoken out about important problems in China today: the mass internment of Uyghurs, human rights abuses in Tibet, and the assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy and democracy. Pavlou’s looming expulsion is seen as an attempt to silence his critique of these horrors.

But more is at stake here. The question is not whether we should protect the freedom to speak out about these issues. We should. I rely on this freedom in my own work on Tibet and need no convincing.

The broader question is how we go about making such critiques in a country where the long shadow of White Australia still looms, and where anti-Asian racism is intensifying. It also forces us to ask if we are willing to let cyber abuse wear the figleaf of humor if it contributes to a critique of tyranny. Are we willing to defend dog-whistles as free speech? Are we happy to let the halo of human rights blind us to flirtations with racism? What ethical compromises will we accept in exchange for the heat and noise of charisma? And what becomes of a human rights movement that fails to reflect critically on these issues?

The University’s Double Bind

By escalating the situation to expulsion rather than demanding an apology from Pavlou, the University of Queensland seems to have locked itself into a double bind. If they fail to discipline Pavlou for cyber abuse, he maintains his image of innocence and continues to act with impunity. And if the university expels Pavlou, they will embolden an activist who fans the flames of racism in the name of human rights. Either outcome sets a troubling precedent at a time when both defending freedom of speech and fighting a rising tide of racism are equally important.

Dr Gerald Roche is a Senior Research Fellow in Politics at La Trobe University.

The article above has been written for the Online Hate Prevention Institute by Dr Gerald Roche. It may be reproduced in print or online provided it is produced in its entirety and the author is acknowledged. If you wish to reproduce an abridged version or would like further comments, please contact the author.

Additional commentary from the Online Hate Prevention Institute:

Dr Andre Oboler, CEO of the Online Hate Prevention Institute commented, “We believe publishing this article is important. Racism targeting people of Chinese nationality, much of it online, is a key element, but so if the protection of academic freedom and freedom of speech. Criticism must be possible, specially in academia, but it needs to be done in a way that doesn’t offend human rights. When racism is employed as a political tool, the speech crosses the line from criticism to abuse and should lose its protection”.

Dr Oboler added, “One striking aspect of this case, shown in the examples, is the sense of entitlement Drew Pavlou has demonstrated. Like many other online trolls, he seems to feel that his actions should be free of any consequence, that he somehow deserves not only the right to harass others, but to do so with impunity. This attitude is an example of a wider, and toxic, online culture. It is a result of far too little being done for far too long. Even now there is almost no investment by social media companies or governments in funding civil society responses to address this toxic culture. This problem is far bigger than Drew Pavlou and this one case.”

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This article is part of the Online Hate Prevention Institute’s special focus on Coronavirus: Racism, Hate Speech and Fake News.