When Drew Pavlou, 20, decided to issue a summons to the the People’s Republic of China’s (PRC) top diplomat in Brisbane (Neos Kosmos, 26 October issue) he focused attention on an important aspect of relations between the world powerhouse and Australia. The education industry.

Last week Neos Kosmos reported that Mr Pavlou had successfully applied under Queensland’s Peace and Good Behaviour Act to bring PRC Consul General to Brisbane, Dr Ju Xie, before the Brisbane Magistrate’s Court on 22 November.

Mr Pavlous is seeking a retraction and apology for statements Dr Jie posted on the consular website on 25 July, the day after a demonstration in support of pro-democracy students in Hong Kong that turned nasty when pro-PRC students confronted the demonstrators. Police were called in after a four-hour standoff.

Dr Jie accused the organisers of the event of being anti-China separatists. The PRC state-owned newspaper Global Times, identified Mr Pavlou as one of two organisers. Mr Pavlou was then inundated with messages threatening his life and that of his family.

Two days after Dr Jie’s post, Australian foreign minister Senator Marise Payne was quoted by an Australian news agency as warning foreign diplomatic representatives residing in that the nation will not tolerate interference in the exercise of free speech.

The minister was reported in comments obtained by the Australian Assocated Press (AAP) as saying: “The Australian Government expects all foreign diplomatic representatives to respect these rights.”

“The government would be particularly concerned if any foreign diplomatic mission were to act in ways that could undermine such rights, including by encouraging disruptive or potentially violent behaviour.” The timing of the reported comments suggests that they were made in response to events at the University of Queensland two days earlier. But the minister is yet to issue a statement that directly relates to the events at the campus on 24 July or that relates to Mr Pavlou’s subsequent court application. Neos Kosmos has sent a list of questions which have been received by the minister’s office.

The same has been the case with the University of Queensland where our efforts to talk directly to the Vice Chancellor, Professor Peter Høj, were redirected to the university website UQ Responds which shares information on the university’s engagements with China. We were also directed to links that featured written messages from the Vice Chancellor and the University Chancellor Peter Varghese.

READ MORE: University of Queensland official response 

In response to the demonstration and subsequent violence at the UQ campus on 24 July, UQ Responds states that “a student-initiated protest took place at our St Lucia Campus. Security staff became concerned when the unacceptable actions of a small number of students posed a potential safety risk to those present. Police were called and work with UQ to help diffuse tensions.

“A review was launched immediately into the circumstances that led to the incident. UQ students were contacted where here were any concerns raised either formally or informally about their safety or their welfare. We also encouraged students to contact police if they had any concerns for their personal safety or about possible criminal behaviour.

“A report on the investigation into the 24 July protest, based on the information UQ was able to obtain, has been provided by the Academic Registrar for consideration. The Integrity and Investigations Unit made numerous requests for students involved to provide statements and other evidence, but all those requests were fulfilled. Investigations are … ongoing,” UQ Responds stated.

Mr Varghese, a former Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade secretary, said in his statement that “the relationship between Australian universities and China is attracting growing attention and some criticism.

“Three questions are being asked: are universities too dependent on the China market, is Chinese influence in Australian universities excessive and what boundaries should be drawn around research collaboration with China. None of these answers are simple and all require vigilance form universities.”

He added that international fees now also subsidise Australian research which was critical to the high global rankings of Australian universities.

According to an Austrade economic analysis, education is worth $34 billion a year to the Australian economy, and is the country’s third largest export.

Prof Peter Høj said in his statement on the UQ website that the role of foreign students and international collaborations has drawn much attention particularly in a time of dwindling federal money to Australian educational institutions.

READ MORE: Greek Australian UQ student sues Chinese consul general amid death threat allegations

“In a climate of declining federal funding as a share of total university funding, international students subsidise our universities, especially our research programs. They also deepen our international links, broaden the horizons of students, and strengthen Australia’s ‘soft power’,” said Prof Høj.

The UQ alone has 9 000 Chinese students, which is about half of the full foreign student presence on the campus and over a fifth of the 53 000 population as a whole

“I, along with the university (UQ) have always been transparent about our engagements with China, and at all times have acted with integrity. UQ strongly rejects any suggestion that our engagements with China have compromised our academic freedom, or are not legal – they have not been the subject of any form of investigation, nor have they breached any Australian legislation,” Prof Høj said on the UQ website.

The Chinese Consul General, Dr Jie is also a professor adjunct to the Confucius Institute, an honorary role in an institution that has drawn a lot of criticism because of its close links to the PRC.

UQ Responds points out that there are 13 Confucius Institutes at Australian universities and there are almost 40 Australian study centres in Chinese universities.