Allegations National leader Simon Bridges covered up the identity of a wealthy Chinese donor have created a firestorm. Who is Zhang Yikun? Laura Walters reports.
The Chinese businessman at the centre of the Simon Bridges donation accusations is an active member of the Chinese community and has courted politicians across the political spectrum.
He’s been pictured with a range of high-profile politicians, including National leader Bridges, party president Peter Goodfellow, Paula Bennett, Auckland Mayor Phil Goff and Labour’s Andrew Little.
But some have expressed concern about the man’s ties with the Chinese Communist Party, as many in the Western world question China’s political influence via donations and soft power initiatives.
On Tuesday, ousted National MP and former party chief whip Jami-Lee Ross accused Bridges of improperly covering up an electoral donation.
Ross said, earlier in the year, Bridges received a $100,000 donation from Auckland businessman Zhang Yikun, following a dinner at Zhang’s home, and a subsequent fundraising event.
On the evening of the fundraiser in May, Ross alleges Bridges called him with instructions to collect the $100,000 donation and split it into smaller sums so it would be below the threshold for declaration, and Zhang would not have to be declared as the source.
Bridges has denied any “corruption”, wrongdoing, or illegal activity regarding his returns.
In an explosive press conference where Ross resigned from the National Party and as a member of Parliament, after being labelled as the source of the leak, he said he had proof of the allegations and would take them to the police on Wednesday.
Bridges said he welcomed the investigation and expected he would be vindicated.
Ross never implied Zhang had done anything illegal or unethical. However, attention immediately turned to the Auckland businessman, his ties to China and his relationship with New Zealand political figures.
On Tuesday evening, University of Canterbury professor and well-known China expert, Anne-Marie Brady said Zhang was a leader in the Chinese Government’s United Front work activities.
The United Front is the Chinese Government’s department that helps keep unity and promote the party’s values in China and among the Chinese diaspora. Brady has written extensively about Chinese influence in New Zealand in her paper Magic Weapons, which was published last year, and has since been cited by China experts around the world.
Who is Zhang Yikun?
Zhang was made a member of the New Zealand Order of Merit as part of this year’s Queen’s Birthday Honours for services to New Zealand-China relations.
At the time, Ethnic Communities Minister Jenny Salesa said Zhang was an effective and tireless community organiser. Last year, the Aucklander also won a Kiwibank local hero award at the New Zealander of the Year awards.
In an online biography, Zhang details his life growing up in Guangdong Province, and goes on to speak about his service in the Chinese military.
After moving to New Zealand in 2000, he started restaurant businesses, before expanding into property investment and food manufacturing.
Now he donates to charities and schools in China and Thailand, and has set up the Chao Shan General Association of New Zealand as a way to help support Chinese migrants, and foster relations between the two countries.
Part of his work included promoting China’s Belt and Road Initiative in New Zealand and leading a delegation to China to visit the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of the State Council last year.
Among the guests were former National MP Eric Roy, and Southland Mayor Gary Tong.
During his trip back to China, Zhang also took part in a Chinese military parade in Tiananmen Square for the celebration of the 90th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Liberation Army.
Zhang has also been involved with trade delegation visits of Chinese Government officials’ visits to New Zealand.
In June last year, Vice Governor Li Guoliang of the People’s Government of Hainan Province of China led a delegation of Hainan Provincial Government and an economic and trade delegation to hold the “China Hainan-New Zealand Economic and Trade Cooperation Exchange Symposium” at the then-Langham hotel in Auckland.
The event was attended by local political figures, including Goodfellow, National’s Mark Mitchell, Labour president Nigel Haworth, Goff, and Labour MP Raymond Huo.
The delegation conference was also attended by other active members of New Zealand’s Chinese community, including president of Hainan Association of New Zealand Feng Ping, member of New Zealand (China) Comrades Union George Bin Qiao Zhibin, and president of New Zealand China Peaceful Reunification Promotion Association Steven Wong.
Zhang has also been photographed at numerous events in Auckland with politicians from Labour and National. Goff also attended an event at Zhang’s house, where he spoke to media.
The mayor’s office confirmed Goff has met Zhang on multiple occasions through his work with the Chinese community. Goff also recommended Zhang for his Queen’s Birthday gong, and supported him in his local hero campaign. Goff received a donation from Zhang during a mayoral campaign fundraising auction in 2016. The individual donation was included with Goff’s other auction donations, which totalled $366,115.
An Official Information Act release described Zhang’s relationship with the Southland District Council, and Mayor Gary Tong, as an official advisor. The response also highlighted Zhang’s political connections, saying “both [Zhang Yikun and Ping Chen] are well known in central government and both have close links to high level Ministers and MPs”.
One MP told Newsroom Zhang had made repeated overtures for them to visit his house for dinner.
It is understood Zhang also regularly interacts with the Chinese Consulate in New Zealand through events in the country and trips overseas.
Zhang could not be reached for comment. His wife told media he was in China.