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PoliticsOctober 19, 2018

The Ross v Bridges affair is a kick up the arse on Chinese state influence in NZ


If there’s one takeaway from the donations controversy that sparked the National Party Meltdown, it’s that we ought to start taking such influence campaigns seriously, writes Branko Marcetic

To read the Chinese Embassy response, scroll to end.

It’s a story about intraparty conflict and political ambition. It’s a story about potential electoral finance lawbreaking. It’s a story about politics in the #MeToo era. And it’s a story about political incivility and racial insensitivity. But the Jami-Lee Ross versus Simon Bridges saga is also the latest episode in the Chinese government’s ongoing campaign of political influence in New Zealand and Australasia as a whole.

According to experts  Anne-Marie Brady and Geoff Wade, the Chinese businessman at the centre of the donation furore that’s engulfed Simon Bridges is a leader in the Chinese Communist Party’s United Front activities. Researcher Jichang Lulu has documented at length Zhang Yikun’s links to United Front and Communist Party officials. According to a page on the Zhuhai Puning Chamber of Commerce, as of 2015, Zhang was on the Standing Committee of the Hainan Provincial Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference, a governmental advisory body, a fact confirmed by an official government web page dated October 2016 and dug up by Lulu.

What is the United Front? Originally a strategy for winning over smaller parties and marginalised social groups, the United Front has morphed into a global influence operation that, as the Financial Times put it in a 2017 investigation into UF activities, aims “to win support for China’s political agenda, accumulate influence overseas and gather key information”. Chinese premier Xi Jinping has put special emphasis on UF activities, expanding its operations, absorbing government operations under its auspices and reportedly personally taking a leading role in its activities.

In Canada, the head of the country’s national intelligence service warned in 2010 that various government officials and employees, and even some provincial cabinet ministers, were being influenced by foreign countries, particularly China. Though he quickly walked it back at the time, he repeated this concern five years later. More recently, these concerns have come to Australia, where one Labor MP resigned over his links to a Chinese billionaire, and a former Labor foreign affairs minister and state premier faced calls to leave the party over his connections. Last year, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation carried out a raid on a suspected Chinese spy.

Now those concerns have arrived in New Zealand. Zhang appears to have gone to great lengths to ingratiate himself with politicians from both major NZ parties. The recording released to the media by Jami-Lee Ross on Wednesday featured National leader Simon Bridges celebrating a $100,000 donation to the party from Zhang and arranging a private dinner with the businessman. There is also discussion of National Party candidacy, with Bridges seemingly amenable to adding another Chinese candidate depending on “where we’re polling”. It’s not clear whether or not Zhang himself was the candidate in question.

Zhang’s friendliness with National isn’t limited to this one donation. Here are several National MPs, including Paula Bennett and Jami-Lee Ross, attending the opening of a function centre owned by the Chao Shan General Association of New Zealand (CSGA), an organisation chaired by Zhang, seated with them at the table. This year, Ross also attended a CSGA New Year’s event where Zhang was present.

Look inside the “inaugural memoir” produced for the organisation’s establishment in 2015, for which Zhang served as the “chief editorial officer” at the same time he was listed a CCP official, and you’ll find the smiling faces of four National MPs toasting its incorporation – including then-Prime Minister John Key. As detailed in the booklet, Key, Ross and then-Minister for Ethnic Communities Peseta Sam Lotu-Iiga attended the opening ceremony and dinner party for its establishment, along with “other prominent members of New Zealand trade and commerce.”

Of course, there is nothing unlawful about appearing in photographs at functions. And nor was it just National. Zhang appeared to cultivate ties with Labour politicians, too, taking pictures with them at a Parliamentary Chinese New Year celebration this year. You’ll find then-Labour leader Andrew Little also beaming out of the CSGA’s inaugural memoir, congratulating the CSGA on its establishment and speaking at its opening ceremony. Same goes for then-Auckland mayor Len Brown. As reported by Newsroom, Zhang also donated to the mayoral campaign of Phil Goff, who attended an event at Zhang’s house, and he found time to serve as a business adviser to the mayor of Southland.

When the CSGA held a charity concert to raise money for mental health earlier this year, numerous “heavyweight guests” attended. They included Labour MP Michael Wood, chair of the Finance and Expenditure Committee through which the Overseas Investment Amendment BIll was weaving at the time, and three National MPs, including Jami-Lee Ross. Phil Goff, unable to attend, sent a video greeting.

At the event, Zhang donated $5,000 to the mental health and intellectual disability charity Framework Services, and an undisclosed amount to St John’s to cover the cost of a new ambulance. In all, the CSGA donated $80,000 to St Johns that night from donors that included Zhang and other CSGA officials. According to the CSGA website, the organisation’s president donated another $230,000 to the charity in September.

Such activities don’t seem particularly sinister. Why should we object to well-off business figures ponying up wads of cash for our beleaguered ambulance and mental health services?

But when considered in the context of China’s United Front activities – that of cultivating influence in foreign countries, currying favour with their political elites, and ultimately shoring up Chinese soft power – such activities take on a different tone.

Nor is the CSGA necessarily all that innocuous. Sure, many of its activities involved promoting cultural exchange and charity events. But as historian Geoff Wade explained, such “hometown” bodies “are used by the CCP to exert influence in countries beyond China.”

It doesn’t take much to see the more concerning forces behind the CSGA. In June 2015, for instance, it welcomed a delegation of the Guangdong Overseas Chinese Affairs Research Group. Such Overseas Chinese Affairs offices have all been placed under the control of the United Front Work Department by President Xi. This July, it hosted a delegation of Overseas Chinese Committee of the National People’s Congress, which included Luo Baoming, a major CCP official who is the former longtime longtime boss of the Hainan province. While here, Baoming promoted President Xi’s “Belt and Road” initiative, among other things, which is itself a tool for expanding Chinese soft power globally.

What the exact implications of the Zhang scandal are will become clearer in the days and weeks to come, particularly as we get more details about Zhang’s relationship to both the CCP and the UF. But this isn’t exactly an isolated incident.

It was only late last year that Newsroom revealed National MP Jian Yang, a major fundraiser hand-picked by National party president Peter Goodfellow in 2011 to be a list MP, had studied and taught at an educational institute that trained Chinese government spies and intelligence officers, something Yang had failed to disclose in his residency application years earlier. According to economist and former Reserve Bank official Michael Reddell, Goodfellow once said that the Chinese are more important than the farms – they don’t complain and they pay up.

Yang has appeared at a number of events hosted by the CSGA this year, including the mental health charity concert, and the July 2018 and June 2015 visits by CCP officials. At the latter, according to the summary posted on the CSGA website, Yang “encouraged the [CSGA] to continue to strengthen the contact and cooperation with the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office to promote economic and cultural exchanges between China and New Zealand.” Recall that Overseas Chinese Affairs offices are a direct arm of UF operations.

Yang was also one of the MPs whose letter congratulating the CSGA on its establishment appeared in the CSGA’s 2015 inaugural memoir. In it, he expressed the hope that through “the organisation and leadership of the Chao Shan General Association, our Chao Shan brethren will contribute to the economic growth of the country.”

But this influence goes much further than a single MP. In her paper outlining United Front activities in New Zealand, Anne-Marie Brady outlined the extensive business links between former National MPs and Chinese entities. Former National leader Don Brash, for instance, chairs the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in New Zealand, while John Key, who as Prime Minister once told a room full of the country’s wealthiest investors that “you are welcome in New Zealand from an investment perspective,” now works as an adviser for Comcast in Beijing, and sold his Parnell mansion for $20 million to a nameless buyer from the country. Former Prime Minister Jenny Shipley chairs the China Construction Bank NZ, and sat on the board of directors of Chinese investment and holding company Richina Pacific.

These connections have sometimes become national scandals. In 2010, National MP Pansy Wong resigned from Cabinet, then from parliament, after it turned out her husband had used her parliamentary travel entitlement for a trip to China in 2008 that involved private business (she was later cleared of systemic abuse of the perk). At that same time, Wong hit the headlines for holding a big money fundraiser whose donors failed to be adequately disclosed to the Electoral Commission, not long after the party had raked in $200,000 from a wealthy Chinese couple.

Then there was the 2014 Oravida scandal that threatened Judith Collins’ political career. While on a taxpayer-funded trip to China, Collins, whose husband was a director of milk exporter Oravida, had a private dinner with two other Oravida directors and a Chinese border official at the same time the company was unhappy with China’s new import procedures on dairy products. Collins later took a significant detour to visit the Oravida offices in China, after which the company posted a photo of Collins saying she’d tasted the milk and endorsed it. Collins and Key said she was just spontaneously “dropping in” for a “cup of tea”, but a tranche of emails later released under the OIA showed the visit had been planned in advance to “increase the profile” of the company.

Obviously, these examples don’t suggest the kind of government influence evident in the Zhang case. Indeed, it’s ridiculous to think that any and all wealthy Chinese immigrants are simply tools of the CCP. But together with the Zhang episode, such examples do demonstrate the way in which the National party leadership’s business ties to, and cultivation of wealthy donors from, the country make it ripe for the kind of influence operations Xi Jinping’s regime is increasingly embarking on.

And it’s not limited to National. Just this April, US lawmakers were urged to consider taking New Zealand out of the Five Eyes Alliance because “one of the major fundraisers for Jacinda Ardern’s party has United Front links”. At the Congressional hearing in question, one speaker claimed that both Australia and New Zealand “have seen a sharp rise in political donations and media investment from United Front Work Department-affiliated entities”, and that both Jacinda Ardern and English “have denied that there’s a problem at all”. One of the witnesses cautioned that “if CCP-backed people are the heads of these Chinese community organisations” in Australia and New Zealand – organisations like the CSGA – and politicians use them to get a feel for what local Chinese communities think, they “essentially have a CCP firewall” between those communities and the political class in each country.

Labour has its own counterpart to Jian Yang in the form of Raymond Huo, who was singled out in Brady’s report as working “very publicly with China’s united front organizations in New Zealand” and promoting their policies. Huo has contacts with the Zhi Gong Party, a minor party under the wing of the United Front Work Department, and he and Zhang frequently appear together at events, including this year’s visit by Luo Baoming (Huo was listed by his Chinese name, Jianqiang).

Years earlier, long before Shane Jones came to prominence for credit card indiscretions, he nearly scuttled his career when as associate immigration minister he approved citizenship against official advice for a wealthy donor who boasted to officials of his closeness to a billionaire CCP official. Jones had been pressured by Dover Samuels, the immigration minister at the time, to make the urgent approval due to the man’s claims he was at risk of execution if he returned to China.

This year, the Canadian intelligence service devoted an entire section to New Zealand in its report on Chinese influence, describing our country as “a vivid case study of China’s willingness to use economic ties to interfere with the political life of a partner country.” Among the strategies it named were political donations from CCP-linked business figures, efforts to influence local communities’ voting preferences, and “the use of mergers, acquisitions and partnerships with New Zealand companies, universities and research centres.” It came only a few months after our own intelligence chiefs raised a similar alarm over Chinese government interference in our domestic politics.

The joke is that, at least in New Zealand, such influence operations are hardly necessary. Because of our economic reliance on China, New Zealand politicians have long toed the preferred line of the Chinese government without being pressed; think the copious documented cases of pro-China censorship by our own authorities, or our prime ministers’ successive refusals to meet with the Dalai Lama.

Still, if there’s one takeaway from the Zhang affair, it’s that we ought to start taking such influence campaigns seriously. Our major parties’ courting of wealthy foreign donors, and our loophole-riddled electoral finance laws, make us sitting ducks for foreign government manipulation now and in the future. Better to nip it in the bud before we have a real reason to experience a US-style national meltdown.

Having a conversation about Chinese and other foreign government influence will no doubt be tricky in a country that has a long history of anti-Chinese xenophobia and racism. But it’s one we need to have, particularly for a country that prides itself on its independent foreign policy. Just remember to aim your scrutiny at the right targets: a totalitarian government overseas, and the business elite intimately connected to it.

The Chinese Embassy in NZ responds: The  Chinese Embassy wishes to make it clear that non-interference in other countries’ domestic affairs has always been one of the core principles in China’s foreign policy. China never uses any person to interfere in any other country’s domestic affairs. Those speculations on China’s role in New Zealand politics are totally groundless. 

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