China’s fake email onslaught ensnares human rights activist

Frankie Vetch


On July 21, an email was sent to the Chinese Embassy in London saying: “This is Drew Pavlou, you have until 12pm to stop the Uyghur genocide or I blow up the embassy with a bomb. Regards, Drew.”

Drew Pavlou, who at the time was protesting outside the embassy, was promptly arrested by U.K. police. The 23-year-old Australian human rights activist, who is vocal on Chinese human rights issues, says he was then detained for 23 hours. The catch was, Pavlou says he did not send the email.

Most people working on Chinese human rights issues have inevitably received an email claiming to be from someone it is not. Having worked for an organization investigating Chinese human rights abuses, the Uyghur Tribunal, I have seen this first hand. But from my experience the emails are often easy to spot. 

In the context of more sophisticated attempts at harassment and disruption, which Coda has written about before, these fake emails are of less concern. While the police must take bomb scares seriously, one would hope that they would be able to quickly discern between a fake email and a real one.

But perhaps Pavlou’s case is evidence that the fake email tactic eventually pays off. If you send thousands of emails day in day out, at some point one is likely to have an impact; causing, as in Pavlou’s case, significant disruption to someone’s life. Pavlou is now out on bail, but on top of having to raise legal costs, he says he has been unable to leave the U.K. and was prevented by the police from attending another Uyghur human rights protest.

We do not know where the email came from, but with an army of around two million paid trolls and twenty million volunteer trolls, the Chinese state certainly has the capacity to send a tidal wave of fake emails. Since his arrest Pavlou has posted some of the trolling he has received, and it is as nasty as it is bizarre. One user sent voice notes on Instagram stating “I hope they rape you to death in prison.”

The Metropolitan Police’s anti-corruption command is now investigating a complaint made about Pavlou’s arrest.

Benedict Rogers, Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, says, “While in many ways UK-China relations have moved on significantly from the dreadful kowtowing days of the so-called Golden Era under David Cameron’s government, and while many in government, Parliament and our security services are waking up to the challenges the Chinese regime poses, this incident shows that there is more work to be done.”

In June the heads of the FBI and MI5 conducted a joint statement warning of the “immense” threat the Chinese Communist Party posed to U.K. and U.S. national security. So it seems surprising that less than two months later U.K. police should fall for a seemingly obvious pro-CCP ploy.


Saudi police arrested an Egyptian TikTok star accused of posting a sexually suggestive video with “lesbian undertones.” The influencer, Tala Safwan, has nearly six million followers on TikTok and YouTube and is popular with teenagers for sharing content about relationships and pop culture. The video at the center of the controversy shows Safwan casually chatting with a female Saudi friend and then inviting her to her house. Critics charged Safwan with promoting sexually suggestive material and launched a social media campaign blitz accusing the influencer of “offending society,” unleashing a firestorm online. Though Safwan vehemently denied the allegations and argued the video was taken out of context, authorities arrested her for “talking to another woman with sexual content and suggestiveness that could have a negative impact on public morality.” Saudi’s media regulator recently cracked down on social media platforms amid an outcry that children were being exposed to inappropriate content. 

Some of the world’s largest tech giants have been linked to illegal gold mining in Brazil’s Amazon rainforest. That’s according to a recent investigation from the Brazilian newsroom Repórter Brasil, which alleges that gold illegally sourced from Indigenous lands in the Amazon made its way through a variety of middlemen to Apple, Google, Microsoft, and Amazon, which used the metal in some of their electronic products. The newsroom obtained documents, which were later reviewed by Reuters, showing that Brazilian federal police accused the Italian company Chimet of purchasing gold from a Brazilian trader alleged to have gotten the metal from illegal miners. “Here in the North, we are complicit in the destruction of mining in Brazil,” the environmental advocacy group Amazon Watch told Repórter Brasil. Illegal mining has increased dramatically under Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro’s watch. For more, check out our piece on how Bolsonaro is using the war in Ukraine as an excuse to open Indigenous land to mining. 

Police in the Netherlands store data on millions of citizens and routinely violate privacy regulations, according to the Dutch newspaper Trouw. The article, which was based on an internal police memo from 2020, revealed that police databases stored information on anyone who had ever interacted with law enforcement — including witnesses of crimes, victims, suspects, and people who have filed a report with the authorities. The police get their information from the government’s personal records database, which permanently stores the information of all Dutch citizens, including non-residents. The data is automatically updated when an individual’s information changes. In an interview with the Dutch newspaper NRC, a privacy expert said police have long been violating privacy laws, leaving citizens’ data unsafe and eroding trust in law enforcement. “Citizens,” he said, “are less inclined to report crime if they are not sure whether their data is safe.” The police, the internal memo acknowledged, has changed the policy but has yet to fully implement the new protocol. Coda has reported extensively on police surveillance — for more, check out pieces on India, San Francisco, Tunisia, and Xinjiang

​​TikTok’s owner Bytedance once used its now-defunct U.S. news app TopBuzz to push pro-China content to Americans. Former employees also said that negative stories about China were censored, all with the goal of influencing public opinion in the United States. This recent Buzzfeed report is the first one alleging that Bytedance at one point intentionally used one of its apps to distribute pro-China messages to Americans, confirming what U.S. lawmakers had feared for years. Bytedance denies the claims. 

This newsletter is curated by Coda’s senior reporter Erica Hellerstein. Liam Scott and Rebekah Robinson contributed to this edition.