The following day Dr Xu, who is also an adjunct professor at the university, posted a statement in Chinese on the Consulate-General’s website reading in part that “a small number of people with ulterior motives carried out anti-China activists at the University of Queensland in Australia, causing 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. The Consulate-General resolutely opposes to [sic] any conduct by words or behaviour to split the country … and to incite anti-China behaviour.”
The statement refers to the university protest as “anti-China separatist activities.”
Also that day the Global Times published the statement and identified Mr Pavlou as an organiser.
“I do feel that my safety is at risk,” he told The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. “My parents have said I might have to move out because of the threats. They want me to be quiet but I feel I have to speak out.”
Mr Pavlou’s lawyer Mark Tarrant said the statement amounted to a threat.
“Official organs of the Chinese government are saying here that it is patriotic to attack students engaged in peaceful protest on Australian campuses,” he said.
Mr Tarrant said that by describing the protest as separatist behaviour Dr Xu was was “inciting and justifying” attacks against Mr Pavlou. “Separatism is an extremely serious criminal offence under Chinese law, it is a capital offence.”
Mr Pavlou is seeking the removal of the Consul-General’s statement and an apology as well as a commitment not to engage in further incitement. Dr Xu has not yet responded to the complaint or to the summons. He is expected to appear before the court on November 22 and may provide a formal response before that time.
Mr Pavlou, 20, has been a vocal critic of the Chinese government and the university’s close ties to it. Leading protests at the university, he has demanded the closure of UQ’s Confucius Institute and criticised vice-chancellor Peter Hoj’s personal ties with the Chinese government.
Mr Pavlou says the university has threatened his enrolment and his candidacy for the university senate. Since being elected as the undergraduate representative on the governing body last week, Mr Pavlou has called for the university’s branch of the Chinese Students and Scholars Association to be shut.
The University of Queensland, the site of tense clashes over Hong Kong in recent months, has emerged as high-profile case study amid growing scrutiny of Chinese government influence in the Australian university system. Like many Australian higher education institutions, the university is heavily dependent on revenue from international students, with China the largest source country.
Professor Hoj was a senior consultant to Hanban, the body that oversees Confucius Institutes globally, and received the“2015 Outstanding Individual of the Year Award” from the Chinese government body.
The university appointed Chinese consul-general Xu Jie as an adjunct professor earlier this year, defending it as an unpaid role that was not involved in teaching.
UQ was one of four Australian universities that signed agreements with Confucius Institute headquarters stating they “must accept” Beijing’s authority over teaching at the facility. The university is renegotiating its contract to more explicitly protect academic autonomy.
It has also been revealed that an introductory course on China was established with funding from the Confucius Institute, considered unusual as soft-power facilities are not ordinarily involved in formal degree courses.
The Chinese embassy has been contacted for response.
Nick O’Malley is a senior writer and a former US correspondent for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.
Fergus Hunter is an education and communications reporter for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age.