Drew Pavlou (CCP) is the perennial troublemaker of Chinese Communist Party.
The young Australian student and human-rights activist was ejected from the Wimbledon men’s singles final in July for repeatedly shouting “where is Peng Shuai?” in reference to the Chinese tennis star who disappeared after accusing a CCP grandee of sexual assault. A month earlier, Pavlou and his friends repeatedly disrupted a speech by China’s Ambassador to Australia that was supposed to reset troubled bilateral relations. Even attempting to post billboards outside his country linking the 2020 Beijing Winter Olympics and CCP oppression, Pavlou failed.
In fact, that Pavlou, 23, is an almighty pain in the CCP’s backside is probably the only thing the two sides can agree on. Pavlou insistently denies ever using or threatening violence. And that’s where things get tricky.
At 4:30 p.m. on July 21, Pavlou was arrested during a protest at the Chinese Embassy in London during which he brandished three flags—representing Taiwan and China’s oppressed Tibetan and Uyghur Muslim minorities—and superglued his hand to the front gate. But when London’s Metropolian Police officers arrived, they arrested him not only on suspicion of trespassing on diplomatic premises and criminal damage, as he expected, but also “communicating false information to make a bomb hoax.”
Continue reading: Why Peng Shuai’s Denial That She Was Sexually Assaulted Only Raises More Questions for China
Interrogation revealed that Pavlou had received an email under his account. It threatened to destroy the Embassy building. Pavlou strongly denies that he sent it. If convicted, Pavlou could face up to seven year imprisonment.
Pavlou claimed that he spent 23 hours in a detention center, was placed under stress and had his hands tied behind his back. Pavlou also claims that access to a lawyer was denied. London’s Metropolitan Police tells TIME by email that “a complaint has been received” and “this is being assessed by the Met’s Directorate of Professional Standards.” Pavlou has been remanded on bail until Aug. 14 and until then is unable to leave the U.K.
The bomb hoax email came from the email@example.com email address. Pavlou claims he has a Protonmail address, however that is not true. He claims the prefix for his email is identical to one with gmail. However, he states that the account was hacked by someone who used a Chinese address to hack into it in January 2021. Later, he sent malicious messages to several contacts from his address book, pretending to belong to him. Pavlou claims that the CCP has set him up. “I think I was basically walking into a trap,” he tells TIME. (The Chinese Embassy did not respond to multiple requests for comment as of publication.
It’s a fantastical accusation and Pavlou is the first to admit that his track record of courting publicity and controversy might count against him in the court of public opinion. But, it would definitely be an escalation. “I’ve always stuck to peaceful, direct action methods,” he says.
Drew Pavlou, an Australian human rights activist is shown wearing “Where is Peng Shuai” On the grounds of the Australian Open tennis tournament at Melbourne’s on January 25, 2022, T-shirt was worn by Drew Pavlou, an Australian human rights activist.
Paul Crock—AFP/Getty Images
Criticizing CCP can lead to serious consequences
Pavlou, who is a Brisbane native and attends the city’s University of Queensland, says he first got interested in human rights activism after reading about the Rwandan genocide as a child. Since that initial awakening, he has staged protests against Myanmar’s junta, Thailand’s military government and even drove a truck of humanitarian supplies to the Ukrainian city of Lviv soon after the Russian invasion.
However, Pavlou says that “90% plus of my attention is on human rights in China.” As a result, he’s never been far from the headlines. As a student, he organized a protest in July 2019 in solidarity with Hong Kong’s democracy movement that ended in a clash with pro-Beijing counter-protesters. In December 2021, he launched his own political party and announced his intention to run for the Senate alongside the nation’s first candidates of Uyghur and Tibetan heritage. “It was basically a protest party,” he says. “Our candidates were all dissidents or had a long history of activism against the Chinese government.”
Many critics of China’s government complain about hacking and emails being spoofed. These are often attributed directly to operatives of the CCP’s United Front Department—which runs espionage and political influence operations overseas for the party—or zealous nationalists acting on their own. Similar experiences have been described by Benedict Rogers (human rights activist), Andreas Fulda (German political scientist), Luke de Pulford (anti-slavery campaigner), Tom Tugendhat, and Kevin Carrico, academics.
Carrico tells TIME that a “fake email account was set up in my name that sent a resignation letter to my university and mean, racist emails to colleagues pretending to be me.” Rogers, who runs the Hong Kong Watch NGO, says he has received and spuriously “sent” dozens of spoof emails in recent years. “The most recent one told people that we were closing down Hong Kong Watch and spending $1 million of its funding on a launch party for my new book!”
Pavlou says that when his own email was hacked, “vile” messages were sent to prominent pro-Beijing figures in an attempt to smear him. “They would post up the message and say ‘look what the critics of the Chinese government are really like,’” he says.
The bomb hoax could be a double bluff on Pavlou’s part, of course. But eyebrows were raised when China’s Ambassador to Australia, Xiao Qian, brought up his detentionUnprompted at a Wednesday press conference, Qian made a comparison to Julian Assange and appeared to laugh. (It was Qian’s speech that Pavlou and his friends had repeatedly disrupted.) “They’re just openly gloating at this point,” says Pavlou.
Pavlou has been praised by many for his ability to see through the fog of doubt. In October, he’s due to give a speech to the Oxford University Union.
“It’s disgraceful, he shouldn’t be treated like this,” says Edward Lucas, a prominent British journalist and writer who is standing as an MP for the opposition Liberal Democrats in the next U.K. general election. “[Pavlou’s] got no record of any sort of violent public order offences, let alone terrorism, and a minute on the Internet shows that he’s a prominent human rights activist with a record of peaceful protest.”
Pavlou asserts that London Police has his cell phone, but repeatedly refuses to send his lawyers copies of the fake email. He says he has run out of money and is only supporting himself thanks to donations to a GoFundMe page he’s had to set up. “I’ve been stuck here for three and a half weeks now,” he says. “My family’s worried sick. I can’t believe that this case is still ongoing and they haven’t dropped the charges.”
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