Beijing’s big bucks billboards display chilling effect on free speech in Australia

Australian Senate candidate Drew Pavlou claims that Australian billboard advertising companies have refused to display his ad campaign out of fear of retaliation by the Chinese government, and that Beijing-funded billboard ads went up instead.

Pavlou’s ad was designed to protest against the upcoming Beijing Winter Olympics being held in a country with serious human rights issues, and depicted works by Chinese dissident artist Badiucao. Bishopp Outdoor Advertising had agreed to place the ad for $3,000.

Art by badiucao
Art by Chinese dissident artist Badiucao that Pavlou wanted to run as billboard ads ahead of Beijing Winter Olympics

But yesterday, a representative from the company called Pavlou to tell him the deal was off, out of fear of offending China.

Pavlou released a recording of the phone call as evidence. In the phone call, the rep says that it’s not just his own company that has rejected the ads, but that nobody in the industry will dare display them.

“So, what happened is that all of the managing directors have gotten together on it … for the $3,000 that you’re about to spend … the risk associated with our industry getting supplied billboards out of China, and steel, which is where it all comes from is not worth the money … even if you were to spend $100,000,” the rep says.

The representative also cited the industry’s concerns about cybersecurity, saying they feared being hacked by Chinese operatives.

Part 1 of Drew Pavlou’s conversation with advertising company rep. For part two, see Pavlou’s Twitter feed.

Gideon Rozner of the Institute of Public Affairs said if this story is true, it is “the biggest story in Australia right now”.

“If the Chinese Communist Party controls what we can put on billboards, then how far and deep does this go?” Mr Rozner told Sky News host James Morrow.

“Every Australian should be terrified of this level of political interference.”

Sky News coverage of billboard ban

Yesterday, December 14, Pavlou took to social media and posted a picture of a billboard advertisement for China Construction Bank.

“On the same day all Brisbane billboard companies blacklist my campaign under Chinese government pressure, billboards promoting Chinese state owned banks pop up around Brisbane, ” Pavlou wrote.

“There you go, now we know why my campaign was censored.”

Billboard advertisement for China Construction bank in Brisbane, Queensland, Australia.
A billboard paid for by China Construction Bank in Brisbane, Australia

The case is not the first time the Chinese government has used the might of money in advertising to influence politics in other countries. In 2019, former Chinese operative Wang Liqian described to Australian media how the CCP purchased large amount of advertising to influence political coverage ahead of elections in Taiwan.

A passionate advocate for the Uyghurs of Xinjiang (East Turkestan), and pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, Pavlou first came to public attention as a student activist protesting the Chinese Communist Party’s growing influence on Australian university campuses.

Pavlou, a University of Queensland senator, was suspended from the University of Queensland in May 2020 for 11 instances of alleged misconduct. The two year suspension was reduced to six months after an appeal hearing determined all but two of the instances were trivial.

Pavlou returned to his studies in early 2021, but is no longer eligible to sit on the UQ Senate. However, Pavlou, just 22 years old, then set his eyes on a bigger arena, and formed a new political party – the Democratic Alliance – with the aim of running for the Australian Senate in 2022.

“The big parties have been able to build their brands over many years. I have been recognised through the media and we have to use that as we do not have a big budget to work with,” Pavlou told Neos Kosmos in an August 18 interview.

Pavlou’s campaign for the Australian Senate was covered by national TV current affairs program 60 Minutes in early November, providing impetus his drive for party memberships, and campaign coverage.

Interview with Drew Pavlou on 60 Minutes

The feisty fighter looked like he’d just taken a blow, yesterday, December 14.

“Ultimately I don’t care if I crash and burn, I will just go and work at my Dad’s fruit shop,” he said on Facebook.

“That’s why I never cared about UQ trying to expel me and it’s why I don’t care if I’m blacklisted for life by the Outdoor Media Association. I just want to do the right thing.”

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