A student protest at a university campus is usually an unremarkable event.
Some demonstrations make a bit of noise, a few generate news headlines if they're especially rowdy, but none spark an international incident with a superpower.
Twelve months ago, Drew Pavlou organised a sit-in attended by just 20 people to protest China's anti-democracy activities in Hong Kong and its persecution of the Uighur minority, as well as to highlight concerns about The University of Queensland's ties with Beijing.
Since then, he's copped death threats and near daily abuse, earned the fury of the Chinese Government, and been expelled as a student by a "kangaroo court".
This is the extraordinary tale of how a 20-year-old student from Brisbane's eastern suburbs woke the angry Chinese dragon, and went to war with one of Australia's most regarded unis.
THE ACCIDENTAL ACTIVIST
Media coverage of long-running protests in Hong Kong against growing attempts by mainland China to stifle free speech and democracy caught Pavlou's attention in early 2019.
He watched with growing alarm as vision circulated on social media of student demonstrators – men and women his age – being attacked by police.
Pavlou began reading about China's human rights record, particularly its treatment of the Uighur minority, who are subjected to brutal punishment.
An estimated 1.5 million Uighurs are being held in concentration camps across China and a special independent tribunal in London last year detailed horrific accounts of forced organ harvesting, including on live prisoners.
"I was appalled by these injustices," Pavlou said.
He also became concerned about UQ's close ties with Beijing, including the Chinese Communist Party funded Confucius Institute on campus.
Peter Hoj, the university's Vice-Chancellor – a position akin to chief executive officer – was an unpaid senior consultant to the Confucius Institute Headquarters, known as Hanban, for four years, and a member of its powerful council.
Hoj ended his involvement in late 2018.
In an interview with ABC program Four Corners last year, Hoj insisted he was "very confident that I haven't been influenced" by China and said the Confucius Institute had never been involved in the academic operation of the university.
However, it emerged in 2019 that the Institute had funded four credited UQ courses about China, including an economics class that Pavlou said was a serious cause for concern.
"It was called Understanding China, and when it came to a discussion of the Uighur concentration camps, they were described as an anti-terror and re-education effort and that they're supposed to address radical Islamic terrorism.
"This is being taught in an Australian public university – justifying concentration camps."
News.com.au asked UQ whether any of its courses are still funded by bodies linked to the Chinese Communist Party, and a spokesperson said: "Due to current legal proceedings UQ is unable to comment."
Confucius Institutes have sparked controversy recently for their links to the CCP's United Front agency, which has been accused of foreign interference and espionage.
Despite a focus on the university's relationship with Hanban last year, including the Four Corners report, it signed a new five-year deal for the campus Confucius Institute.
"UQ's contract for the UQ Confucius Institute protects the university's autonomy while delivering educational co-operation, particularly in Chinese languages," the university said in a statement.
Pavlou believed UQ's reliance on international students from China, Hoj's long association with Hanban and the Confucius Institute, and the blurred lines between academic independence and foreign interests, were inappropriate.
"We were calling for our university to divest all of its ties to the Chinese Government while these atrocities were going on," he said.
"I felt like I needed to speak up. I didn't want to look the other way because it was too inconvenient or uncomfortable to talk about.
"So, I organised one protest. I'd never held a protest before or anything like that. I wouldn't have considered myself an activist."
He told a few friends who were interested in politics and history, and word spread to some Hong Kong students, who agreed to meet early in the afternoon on July 24.
"Never did I think it would blow up in the way it has. It shouldn't have caused an international incident."
ONE FATEFUL DAY
So inexperienced at protesting was Pavlou that he was half-an-hour late to his own demonstration, having forgotten to organise a loudspeaker.
"I was running around trying to find a printer to print some flyers, I was trying to get a loudspeaker – it was pretty haphazard. And it was small. There were 15 or 20 of us."
It was the busiest day of the year – Market Day – and the group positioned themselves at the part of campus with the most foot traffic – the entrance to the Great Court, a massive grass area surrounded by grand sandstone buildings.
They sat down on a walkway and began chanting – typical uni demonstration fare, like "Hey, hey! Ho, ho! Xi Jinping has got to go" and variations of it.
"We didn't really notice at first that we'd been surrounded on all sides," Pavlou said.
An estimated crowd of 200 pro-CCP activists had descended on the St Lucia campus to counter his small rally.
Things quickly turned ugly, he said.
"There were two or three people with face masks and sunglasses, trying to disguise their faces, with earpieces in, who all approached me from different angles. They seemed to be co-ordinating the group.
"One ripped the megaphone from my hand. I got up to confront him and got punched in the ribs and thrown to the ground. I got up again and got punched again in the side of the mouth.
"As I was being attacked, this crowd started playing the Chinese national anthem. We were surrounded on all sides and it became this stand-off.
"This guy came up behind me and punched me in the back of the head, threw me to the ground and grabbed my poster and tore it up.
"Other Hong Kong students were punched and choke-slammed. A security guard tried to step in and he was bitten."
Police were called and Pavlou said he was advised by officers that he was outnumbered, and the safest thing to do was move on.
He did, but a few students from Hong Kong stayed behind to stage a silent sit-in on a grassy hill nearby and were joined by several others.
"Then I got a text an hour later that some of the Hong Kong students were being hassled again. They were being attacked. One got choked. A girl had her dress ripped.
"We ran back to help. It had gotten much worse. More CCP supporters came – the police estimate was that there were about 500 of them there.
"A huge contingent of police were there and tried to separate the groups. They spoke to someone from the (pro-Beijing side) and this guy said they weren't leaving until I apologised to China for the protest."
A witness on the day told news.com.au that the pro-CCP side were screaming "apologise!" over and over again.
"Ultimately, we had to leave under a police escort," Pavlou said. "The (pro-CCP) people stayed and sung nationalist songs and chanted for another hour."
The instigators of the violence were older and didn't appear to be students, Pavlou said.
"I suspect they were sent by the Consulate," he said.
"This was a co-ordinated attempt to silence free speech on an Australian university campus through fear and intimidation."
It might sound far-fetched to many that the Chinese Consulate would care very much, let alone enough to send "operatives" to a student peaceful protest.
But it has a history of intervening in hyper-local and seemingly insignificant issues.
In 2018, the regional Queensland town of Rockhampton held a community art exhibition to celebrate its Beef Week, where life-size papier-mache bulls were decorated by schools.
One was painted with international flags and symbols in celebration of the area's diverse culture and multiculturalism, and included the Taiwanese flag.
A short time after it joined others on display in the town's main street, the Taiwanese inclusion was painted over by council staff – at the demand of the Chinese Consulate, it later emerged.
Rockhampton Mayor Margaret Strelow admitted the Vice-Consul in Brisbane had complained, sending through photos of the offending statue.
"Council officers contacted the school to explain that there was a problem (and) when the school couldn't offer a solution, council staff proceeded to paint over the flag and words," she told The Morning Bulletin.
Earlier this month, the Australian Strategic Policy Institute released analysis about the level of Chinese interference and influence playing out across almost every aspect of Australian life.
The report focused on the work of United Front – a mammoth, powerful and shadowy group that controls thousands of community organisations in foreign countries.
Overseas Chinese students have "long been a target of United Front (activity)", ASPI researcher Alex Joske wrote, adding: "This was reiterated in 2015 when Xi Jinping designated them a 'new focus of United Front'."
Chinese Students and Scholars Associations (CSSA) exist around the world, including in Australia, and provide a useful function for people studying overseas.
But Joske wrote that they are "the primary platform for United Front work on overseas students … (and) most operate under the guidance of Chinese embassies and consulates".
"A 2013 People's Daily article describes Australian CSSAs as 'completing their missions … under the direct guidance of the Embassy's Education Office'," he wrote.
CSSA executives are tasked with organising rallies and promotional events, but also with reporting on dissident Chinese students.
On July 24, it appears they were successful in gathering intelligence on those who had taken part in the Hong Kong demonstration.
FEAR AND INTIMIDATION
Among Pavlou's rag-tag group of protesters that day were two students from mainland China.
Within hours, one had images of his passport and citizenship documents, along with his residential address in Brisbane, shared on the Chinese social media platform WeChat.
"Another guy who was with us, his parents (in mainland China) got a visit from state security officials who told them to make their son stop protesting," Pavlou said.
"Within hours, the Chinese government had identified people at a protest in Brisbane and mobilised police thousands of kilometres away. It was really scary."
He too was targeted in a brazen and worrying way.
Global Times, the English language mouthpiece of the Communist Party, wrote a scathing article about his protest.
Pavlou was named, alongside a photograph, and described as a "separatist" – a crime on par with murder in China, punishable by death.
"To be called a separatist by Chinese state-controlled media was kind of an invitation for people to go open season on me," he said.
"I had all of these abusive messages and death threats flooding in."
Every one of the 20-odd people who had taken part in Pavlou's protest was identified and received threats and abuse, he said.
On July 25, the Consul General of China in Brisbane, Dr Xu Jie, issued a public statement about the protest and repeated the accusation that Pavlou's group had carried out "separatist activities".
Dr Xu praised the "self-motivated patriotic behaviour" of pro-CCP activists while condemning Pavlou's protest as "anti-China separatist activities".
It prompted an avalanche of abuse, Pavlou said.
"There were threats against me and my family, someone said they'd rape my mother in front of me and then kill us... it was vile stuff."
Dr Xu was awarded an honorary professorship at UQ – an appointment that the university didn't announce to local media. The news was shared with Chinese language news outlets and on the social media platform WeChat.
In a statement, UQ said it has "appointed more than 260 professorial titleholders in the past few years and does not announce them in the media".
Pavlou said he was scared and stressed, but most of all, "pissed off" at what he saw as attempts to bully and silence him.
So, he organised another protest.
"I thought, let's go again, let's show defiance to those who tried to silence us. I put a post on Facebook saying we'd make a stand and protest again on July 31 at 12pm."
And that's where UQ stepped in, he claims.
THE DREADED 'D' WORD
Despite being attacked on campus, including by people who likely weren't students, and disclosing that he'd been threatened, Pavlou didn't hear from the university until the next day.
When he did, it wasn't a message of concern or support.
"I received an email from the university telling me to come to a disciplinary meeting," he said.
The date and time of that scheduled meeting? July 31 at 12pm.
Pavlou viewed it as a transparent attempt to force the cancellation of the second protest and so he refused to attend.
In a statement, UQ said it "refutes the claims by some individuals about the support provided to students".
When he met with officials to discuss security arrangements for the second protest, he claims he was threatened.
"I was told in that meeting that they liked me being a student at UQ and would like that to continue into the future. It felt like a scene from the Godfather movie."
A UQ spokesperson said the university "is unable to provide comment on an individual student matter".
After the meeting, Pavlou said he called the university's bluff and the protest went ahead.
In the days and weeks following, he repeatedly requested a meeting with Hoj to discuss concerns about the uni's ties with China.
Those requests were ignored, he said.
"So, I thought if he wouldn't meet with me, I'd run for the UQ Senate – the board that governs the university."
Pavlou ran for the undergraduate seat on the Senate, which is voted on by students, and won.
"The very first meeting of the Senate was in February," he said.
"It was right as the coronavirus pandemic was in full swing. Instead of discussing the COVID-19 crisis and the university's response, the entire thing was devoted to me and an attempt to have me removed."
Screenshots of Pavlou's social media posts were displayed and he was told he had breached student conduct guidelines.
He was threatened with expulsion at that meeting, he said.
'IT JUST GOT WORSE'
Pavlou thought the first Senate meeting where he was threatened with expulsion was an attempt to scare him, and that nothing else would come of it.
He was wrong.
The university prepared a 186-page confidential dossier outlining his alleged misbehaviour and breaches of the student code.
"It included social media posts going back months and months, including screenshots of comments taken out of context," he said.
"It included stuff as petty as 'Drew used a pen in the campus art shop and then put it back and left the store, and this disrupted the activity of staff and students.'"
A Facebook post calling for students to recreate a high school Muck-Up Day tradition on campus was also included. Pavlou insists it was a "stupid" joke.
"They included allegations that I had bullied specific students. Those students later came forward and said they'd never complained, they didn't want to complain, they weren't offended. It was crazy."
UQ officials told Pavlou that the disciplinary proceedings were confidential and "there would be consequences if I spoke about it", he claims.
For a week, he sat silently at home and fell into a deep depression, he said.
"I was wallowing and down in the dumps, in a really dark place. It felt like my life was over. Everything was destroyed. I was scared, I was sad."
And then he was angry.
"I figured it was my expulsion so I could talk about it. I thought I could either crash, or crash through. I decided to crash through."
Pavlou went to the media to detail his version of events and the treatment he had received from the university he'd attended for almost four years.
"UQ wanted to do me over quietly and quickly," he said. "Suddenly, everyone knew what they were doing.
"There were 40,000 signatures on a petition, it was reported in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Australian … it was everywhere."
His now-barrister, the prominent Tony Morris QC, watched the coverage about Pavlou's plight in alarm and reached out, offering to represent him for free.
Together, the pair went to a hearing of the disciplinary board and found that two top-tier law firms had been engaged to prepare a recommendation about his case.
They called for Pavlou to be punished with "the harshest penalties possible", he said.
"The Board is made up of full-time university employees. How could they respond? It was a kangaroo court. So, we walked out.
"They went ahead and expelled me. They don't describe it as an expulsion, but effectively it is. I'm 'suspended' for two years, the immediate removal from my democratically elected position on the Senate and the inability to ever graduate."
State-run media outlet Global Times celebrated his expulsion in an article, describing him as "anti-China" and quoting unnamed students who were said to be celebrating "justice".
UQ Chancellor Peter Varghese – a well-regarded former senior public servant and diplomat, who was appointed an Office of the Order of Australia in 2010 – finally stepped in.
"I was today advised about the outcome of the disciplinary action against Pavlou," Varghese said in a statement on May 29.
"There are aspects of the findings and the severity of the penalty which personally concern me. In consultation with the Vice Chancellor (Hoj), who has played no role in this disciplinary process, I have decided to convene an out-of-session meeting of UQ's Senate next week to discuss the matter."
That meeting was held on June 5 and agreed to await the outcome of an appeal lodged by Pavlou, due next Monday.
In his statement, Varghese said: "Senate noted that the issues of alleged misconduct and freedom of speech had been so commingled in the media coverage of the case that it made it difficult to untangle in public perceptions."
In the meantime, Pavlou and Morris QC have lodged action in the Supreme Court against Hoj, Varghese and UQ seeking $3.5 million in damages.
EXTRAORDINARY EMAIL CHAIN
Late on the afternoon of July 24, as Pavlou and his friends left campus under police escort, able to hear the chants of pro-CCP figures who were allowed to stay, UQ swung into action.
Its communications office prepared a statement about the demonstration and sent it to the Chinese Consulate in Brisbane "for review".
Pavlou's barrister, Morris QC, said the correspondence "plainly shows that a draft public statement was sent to the Chinese Consul-General 'for review'."
"The dictionary meaning of 'review' is 'a formal assessment of something with the intention of instituting change if necessary'," Morris QC told The Courier-Mail.
"Since when does UQ send public statements to the diplomatic representatives of a foreign government … for 'formal assessment … with the intention of instituting change if necessary'?."
In a statement, UQ denied it sought approval from the Consulate and instead was sending a proposed message that "outlined the university's expectations that students express their views in a lawful and respectful manner".
"The message was approved without any changes, and emailed to the Consulate and copied to the Confucius Institute at 7.05pm," the statement said.
"The Vice-Chancellor was not in contact with the Consulate on this matter. In addition, the university also communicated its position to a number of other stakeholders including government, partners and the sector's peak bodies."
UQ eventually released copies of the emails with names redacted, as well as a timeline, but Morris QC claims it presents only part of the story.
'THE BILLION-DOLLAR QUESTION'
UQ denies the disciplinary action against Pavlou is linked in any way to his protests last July, nor his commentary about its links with China.
"The university's policies are not driven by politics, and we completely reject the claims that this ongoing disciplinary matter is a free-speech issue; student disciplinary matters are initiated in response to complaints made to the university," it said in a statement.
"It is entirely reasonable and appropriate for the university to provide a safe environment for students and staff, both on campus and online, to protect their welfare and mental health.
"Part of this is ensuring complaints are fairly considered through a standard, confidential disciplinary process which is being followed in this case.
"Eroding or undermining these processes reduces the likelihood that students and others will feel safe to report behaviour which they feel is inappropriate or unacceptable.
"For this reason, we cannot respond or engage in discussions on our student disciplinary matters – even if this means we cannot correct inaccuracies that misrepresent the university."
But the nature of the charges against him, which Pavlou describes as mostly petty and baseless, cast doubt on this claim.
So, why would a prestigious university – consistently ranked as among the best in the world – pursue a student without cause?
"It's literally a billion-dollar question," Pavlou said.
"If the Chinese Government was to suddenly declare that its students couldn't study at UQ because its campus was too politically sensitive, the uni would lose about $1 billion in revenue over the coming decade."
Twenty per cent of the university's revenue is derived from fees from Chinese students, of which there are 9000 currently enrolled.
In 2018, international students contributed a total of $570 million in tuition to UQ's coffers.
Before that chaotic afternoon on July 24, which sparked a "year from hell", Pavlou said he aspired to become an academic one day.
He'd go on to do a PhD, perhaps in philosophy or politics, with the goal of becoming a lecturer at a university like UQ, he figured.
"Not anymore though. I've seen the university sector. I've had a lifetime of dealing with people like that."
The past 12 months have left him exhausted and uncertain about the future, but Pavlou said he has no regrets.
"In hindsight, I had the opportunity in the few days after the protest to back down and go away, and let this all stop. It would've been so easy.
"But it's important to stand up for your values. I think democracy and freedom of speech are worth defending. And it's also about human rights for the people facing genocide in China.
"What's happened is horrible. It's been tremendously stressful and taken a toll. It sucks and it's caused a lot of pain.
"But they've picked the wrong person. I'm not backing down."