Earlier in the year, Simon Bridges and Jami-Lee Ross discussed a wealthy donor nominating his business partner as a National candidate. But experts are divided over whether this adds weight to growing questions around China’s political influence, writes Laura Walters.
Following an alleged $100,000 donation from Auckland-based Chinese businessman Zhang Yikun, National Party leader Simon Bridges and now-ousted MP Jami-Lee Ross discussed the future political prospects of Zhang’s business partner Colin Zheng.
“There’s no catch or anything to it,” Ross says on the tape, in reference to the large donation.
He then goes on to remind Bridges that Zhang discussed the possibility of another Chinese candidate for National, over the dinner Bridges and Ross attended.
Ross specifically says Zhang suggested Zheng for National’s candidate school.
“I assume he’ll get through candidates’ college and we’ll just make some decisions as a party further down the track,” he said.
Bridges went on to say, “two Chinese would be nice”.
National currently has one Chinese MP: Jian Yang, who was embroiled in a scandal during last year’s election, after Newsroom reported he had taught students at a Chinese spy school.
The pair then weighed up the advantages of having Chinese, Filipino and Indian MPs.
“It’s like all these things, it’s bloody hard. You’ve only got so much space. It depends where you’re polling,” Bridges said.
“We could end up getting rid of some list MPs if we wanted to bring in some of those new ones but then if you do that you’re just filling up your list even further with ones you’ve got to look after.”
When Bridges fronted media on Wednesday afternoon he said there was never any suggestion of money in exchange for a candidate, or MP.
He defended his comments about MPs’ ethnicities by saying he was “incredibly proud National is a party that thinks about multi-culturalism and our representation”.
“And what it is we need to reflect the mix that New Zealand increasingly has.”
Zhang and Zheng are both currently in China and couldn’t be contacted.
Zhang Yikun courts politicians
Zhang is a well-known and well-connected member of the Chinese community who has courted politicians across the political spectrum.
On Tuesday, Newsroom detailed Zhang’s military history, and his rise as a businessman and member of New Zealand’s Chinese community.
He’s attended numerous political fundraisers for both Labour and National, and donated to Phil Goff’s 2016 Auckland mayoral campaign.
National MPs including Simon Bridges, deputy leader Paula Bennett, former prime minister John Key, Jami-Lee Ross, Mark Mitchell, Jian Yang, and National Party president Peter Goodfellow have all been photographed at fundraisers and conferences with Zhang.
Jacinda Ardern was also photographed with Zhang at a Labour Party fundraiser in Auckland in the lead-up to last year’s election.
It’s understood the fundraiser was organised by Labour MP Raymond Huo, who has also attended the same events as Zhang on numerous occasions.
A written statement prepared by the Prime Minister’s Office after being approached by Newsroom said: “The Prime Minister does not personally know Mr Zhang, however, he is a leader in the Chinese community, so he will probably have attended some of the same events as the Prime Minister in recent times. The Prime Minister had no private meetings with Mr Zhang.”
Her office said she had not received any personal donations from Zhang, and if the party had received any donations they would have been under the threshold, as none had been declared to the Electoral Commission.
A spokesman for the Prime Minister said she had never had a conversation with Zhang, but knew who he was, and was aware of being at functions he had attended. Zhang also attended a Chinese New Year function at Parliament where Ardern spoke.
The fundraiser took place on September 9, was at China Yum Char Restaurant on Beach Rd in Auckland. National Party MPs Judith Collins, Kanwal Bakshi, and Simeon Brown held a fundraiser at the same restaurant later in September.
Newsroom has been told Zhang owns the restaurant. Companies Office records show Zhang Yi Kun (a different spelling) is a shareholder.
Huo would not comment on the fundraiser or his relationship with Zhang. The Prime Minister’s Office referred questions on party donations and fundraising to the Labour Party president. Labour Party president Nigel Haworth said he was unavailable to comment.
‘No cause for concern’
Some China experts, including University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady, have expressed concern over growing Chinese political influence in New Zealand.
Brady’s concerns have been detailed in her paper Magic Weapons, and others raised the issue after the Jian Yang saga.
Zhang’s interactions with the Chinese Consulate, trips back to China, and prominent position as the founding member and head of the Chao Shan General Association of New Zealand, indicated he was part of China’s United Front work programme, according to some China watchers.
However, University of Auckland Chinese politics senior lecturer Stephen Noakes said so far all evidence pointed to a businessman who wanted to have good political relationships.
In this case, and others, Noakes did not believe there had been a “tit for tat” situation.
“This is the kind of lobbying that happens in all democracies …
“I’m a lot less concerned about this than some other people are … there isn’t really any compelling smoking gun-type proof of anything.”
Concerns about China’s creep came from an “outdated perception” of how the country functioned, and as Kiwis became more familiar with China, Noakes expected fears to dissipate.
It was also common for Chinese men of a certain age to have served in the military and be a member of the Chinese Communist Party. It would be strange if Zhang wasn’t a party member, he said.
While Noakes did not think soft power and Chinese political influence was a current problem in New Zealand, if more evidence came to light, the country would need to have a more serious discussion.
New Zealand had robust democratic systems in place but they needed to be used as intended, to promote transparency and open discussion about important issues.
“China is not the threat here – we are. Every time we self-censor, every time we choose not to speak up on things we care about for fear of offending China.”
So while Noakes did not agree with the concern some shared about the Zhang saga, or China’s influence in general, he did agree New Zealand should be having a debate about the issue.