John Hong might poll well behind Auckland’s mayoral heavyweights, but his first tilt at politics could yet take him to a bigger stage.

Deep in the field of 21 people trying to become Mayor of Auckland on Saturday is John Hong, the man of many serious billboards declaring himself ‘Your Right Mayor’.

His has become a relatively prominent face across the isthmus, vying with ads for frontrunners Phil Goff and John Tamihere and another challenger Craig Lord for motorists’ attention.

By his own admission, he arrived late on the campaign scene, with little time to have people learn much of his background, and he seems unlikely at first attempt to register hugely when the results are counted at the weekend. [Update 2: Hong polled fourth in the field, with 15,965 votes, behind the three men named above.]

But Hong’s could be a name we hear more of in politics. Some think his tilt at the mayoralty is an exercise in profile-raising ahead of a possible step towards national politics. 

He won’t comment on the longer game right now.  “For the time being, to be the right Mayor for Auckland is my only concern.”

Hong’s mayoral candidacy is unusual not only because he is the first Chinese-born candidate for mayor in the city’s 178-year history, but because he was until late last year an executive for Auckland Council-controlled company, Panuku Development Auckland, where he was “head, investment and international relationships”. His role for Panuku and before that, at Waterfront Auckland, included promoting foreign direct investment into Auckland for developments such as the Wynyard Quarter.

As a recent member of the wider Auckland Council ‘family’ he chose to challenge the sitting mayor. 

Hong migrated to New Zealand from Fujian province in 2003. He is well-connected in Auckland’s Chinese community, chairing the New Zealand promotion committee for China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the global economic and diplomatic play by which China invests in ports, roads, tourism and other infrastructure.

He is seen as a personable and “professional gentleman” and if his political ambitions do run past the Bombay Hills and Wellsford, Hong has associates with the wherewithal to help him succeed.  

One of his other current roles, listed under the Chinese name Hong Cheng Chen, is as a government relations adviser for the Chao San General Association of New Zealand. 

This 1000-member organisation was founded and chaired by Zhang Yikun. Zhang was thrust into national prominence last year when identified by former National MP Jami-Lee Ross as having provided a $100,000 donation to that party, which Ross said was subsequently divided into smaller amounts within National to avoid campaign finance declarations.

Zhang, a successful Auckland businessman who came to New Zealand in 2000, is seen as a leading force in the work of the United Front, the Chinese Communist Party’s movement for overseas promotion and involvement with expatriate Chinese communities. 

RNZ reported he owns multiple companies involved in land development, construction and real estate, and is well-known in New Zealand Chinese and government circles. 

The United Front is said to work with talented individuals to succeed in the open political systems of Western countries.

Hong’s role in Chao San is not mentioned on his mayoral campaign site, where he lists membership of the executive of the NZ-China Trade Association. 

Hong told Newsroom he was finding “heaps!” of support among Chinese Aucklanders and he had “a lot of support from a lot of different associations”.

On funding, he said his would have been raised in the same way as for the campaigns of other mayoral candidates. 

One community observer told Newsroom: “In my personal opinion, the purpose of his team (probably Zhang Yikun) is to expand John’s popularity and recommend him to National or Labour to be a list MP before the 2020 election.”

There would be nothing new in that. Many people with political aspirations build their profiles with local body campaigns before moving to nationwide politics. Hong’s strong links to the Chinese community and his professional experience in investment and international affairs could place him in high demand. His relationship with Zhang might suggest the blue team rather than red side in national politics. 

His billboard use of the word ‘Right’ is not without intent. “I am a right-thinking leader and I think people on the right-wing of Auckland need someone to vote for,” he told Newshub. “We have two former Labour cabinet ministers leading this and apparently the other frontrunners do not have any policy at all.”

Hong does not criticise his former political boss, Goff, directly. Instead he says Auckland needs a new direction and leadership that understands the city in “psychological and sociological ways”. Given his attachment to the Belt and Road Initiative, his policies are long on road, bridge and infrastructure spending.

Hong told Newshub his main motivation to stand was the regional fuel tax. “We haven’t really got anything for that. We have got ghost trams promised to go through the mayor’s former electorate and nothing has come from that, so we are not getting anything for the tax, so we want to scrap that tax.”

To Newsroom, he said the office of mayor would allow him “to lead and manage Auckland Council and its CCOs in a more effective, transparent, accountable, approachable, feasible way, with great vision.”

Mayoralty or not, he is aware of the long game. His site features an NZ Chinese Herald article using this Chinese quote: “It takes 10 years to sharpen a sword; it takes great pain to be perfect.”

Tim Murphy is co-editor of Newsroom. He writes about politics, Auckland, and media. Twitter: @tmurphynz

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