Comment

Follow the money and the influence

Bernard Hickey calls out our politicians for being soft on China and its attempts to influence our politics. He argues for inquiries into electoral finance rules and China's activities here.

Someone has to say it if our politicians are too self-interested or scared to say it.

We need to take a hard look at who is donating money to our politicians and why. And we need to stop pussy-footing around the elephant in the room that is China's influence on New Zealand politics.

We need inquiries into both the transparency of our Electoral Finance Act and the activities of the Chinese Government in New Zealand public life. Our Australian partners and colleagues were not afraid to do both. We should follow suit.

This week's dramas should have alerted the broader public to the problems, but they are not new and not confined to National's side of politics.

Exhibit 1: The donation

Botany MP Jami-Lee Ross alleged on Tuesday he was ordered by Simon Bridges to help break up a $100,000 donation to the National Party from a Chinese Government-aligned businessman into smaller parcels of less than $15,000 each to avoid having to declare the source of the donation/s to the Electoral Commission and therefore the public.

The alleged donation from Zhang Yukin (above right), who was a member of the Communist Party's Consultative Conference in Hainan Province for five years until this year, came after he met Bridges at a dinner on May 14 this year at his home in Auckland. The photo above is from this encounter.

Less than a month later the construction company owner and former People's Liberation Army member was awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit by Governor General Patsy Reddy. He was nominated by former National MP Eric Roy, National List MP Jian Yang and Auckland Mayor Phil Goff, although the award was confirmed by the current Labour-New Zealand First coalition Government.

The parceling up of donations is perfectly legal if done before the donations are handed over and we may never know if this parcelling up was ordered by Bridges or not. Ross said on Wednesday he did not have a smoking gun recording of being ordered to do this by Bridges, but did release a tape of the two them talking about the donation, which Ross said had already been placed in the Botany electorate account.

The parcelling tactic and others aimed at clouding the identity of donors is common practice if the statistics on money raised by our political parties are to be believed. Stuff reported last year that 83 per cent ($8.7m over six years) of the money donated to National was from anonymous donors, and 80 per cent ($2.8m) of that donated to Labour was done anonymously.

Labour has collected tens of thousands of dollars anonymously from donations through art auctions, while National has collected much more through dinners with access to cabinet ministers where seats were sold for thousands of dollars.

Exhibit 2: The List MPs

The role of list MPs on both sides of the house who are closely aligned with Indian and Chinese communities is also under scrutiny, especially in the wake of revelations about Jian Yang's undisclosed background in Chinese military intelligence and criticism of Labour MP Raymond Huo's connections to organisations funded and run by the Chinese Government.

The strongest of these organisations is the United Front, which the Chinese Communist Party has openly tasked with projecting China's influence beyond its borders and maintaining connections with and influence over Chinese communities overseas.

Ross' secret recording of a phone conversation he had with Bridges is chilling in the way they talk about National choosing new list MPs.

Ross talks about the potential to raise more money with two Chinese MPs than two Indian MPs. National currently has Kanwal Singh Bakshi and Parmjeet Parmar as list MPs. He told Bridges that Zhang's employee, Colin Zheng, could become a National list MP and was already enrolled in a candidate's course, although he did preface this part of the conversation by saying the $100,000 came with no strings attached. 

"Two Chinese would be nice, but would it be one Chinese and one Filipino...what do we do?" Bridges asked.

"Two Chinese would be more valuable than two Indians, I'd have to say," Ross replied.

"Yeah, which is what we've got at the moment, right?" Bridges said in reference to Bakshi and Parmar, adding changing things would cause problems with list MPs and was a "pretty mercenary cull."

Labour's political hierachy is also not immune from accusations of being closely connected to figures in and around the Chinese Government and its major projects, including the Belt and Road Initiative. This photo from auznz.net shows Labour President Nigel Haworth (the tallest bearded one) in a lineup with Ross, National President Peter Goodfellow, National-aligned Auckland Councillor Desley Simpson, National MP Paul Goldsmith and Zhang (far right) at a 2016 event in Auckland promoting the Belt and Road Initiative, which is the Chinese Government's major foreign policy strategy.

Belt and Road has been criticised as a tool for projecting Chinese power into South Asia, the Pacific and the Middle East. China has already claimed ownership of a new Sri Lankan port after local authorities borrowed money from China to build it and went broke. The port offers excellent access for China's Navy to the Indian Ocean.

Exhibit 3: The MP trained by China's spies

Jian Yang's continued presence in Parliament without any critical public comment by all of the political establishment is still stunning.

Newsroom reported in a joint investigation with the FT in September last year on his training in Chinese military intelligence for more than a decade and his still very close links to the Chinese Government. At one point he was the Chair of the Foreign Affairs and Trade Select Committee and a close adviser to then-Prime Minister John Key during negotiations with President Xi Jingping.

WInston Peters called for an inquiry into Yang's background before the election, but he has been much more circumspect to the point of silence since then.

However he admitted to NPR earlier this month that the MP's continued presence in Parliament was concerning New Zealand's allies. He hinted some action might come.

"At that level of growing public interest — and I would think intelligence interest as well — plus the shared intelligence from our closer allies, one would be naive in thinking that our response would not be forthcoming," he was quoted as saying.

Yet nothing has happened.

Exhibit 4: The weakest link (and wink)

New Zealand continues to turn a blind eye to China's encroachment in the South China Sea and its imprisonment and persecution of Muslim minorities in Western China. No New Zealand Prime Minister has openly criticised anything China has done in more than a decade, despite warnings from security services of China's push to influence politics here and elsewhere in the Pacific, as well as hack into our networks for commercial and other reasons.

Our allies now see New Zealand as the weak link in the Five Eyes intelligence network.

Australian officials refer to Five Eyes privately as 'Four Eyes and a Wink,' with New Zealand as the Wink.

Exhibit 5: 'Magic Weapons' here

University of Canterbury Professor Anne-Marie Brady has written extensively about the Chinese Government's use of United Front organisations, Confucius Institutes and other measures to project its power globally.

These United Front activities, which President Xi Jingping has called one of the CCP's 'Magic Weapons', have  been expanded dramatically in recent years as President Xi has taken a more muscular approach to global affairs.

Brady's 'Magic Weapons' paper on the subject is worth a read to understand the extent of the activities here in New Zealand and elsewhere.

 New Zealand Police and Interpol are now investigating a break-in and burglary of Brady's home in Christchurch in February, which she has said may be connected to Chinese intelligence activities.

Follow the money and influence

Australia has taken China's efforts to influence politics there much more seriously, with politicians willing to speak out and criticise those tactics.

Australia's ABC and Fairfax jointly reported in June last year on China's influence on Australian politics.

Then Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull ordered the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation to report on foreign influence in Australian politics in 2016.

"Our system as a whole had not grasped the nature and magnitude of the threat," Turnbull told Parliament last year.

An adviser to the Australian Government who helped write the report, John Garnaut, was more specific in testimony to the US House Armed Services Committee.

"Under the uncompromising leadership of President Xi Jinping, China's activities have become so brazen and so aggressive that we can't ignore it any longer," Garnaut said.

Last December Australia banned foreign political donations and said lobbyists would have to declare if they were working for foreign governments. This followed revelations that a Labor Senator, Sam Dastyari, spoke out in favour of China's claims over the South China Sea, but only after he had used donations from a Chinese property developer to pay personal debts.

"Senator Dastyari sold Australia out," Turnbull said.

"China respects strength, they respect honesty, they expect the Australian Government to stand up for Australia's interests, to be frank and honest and when we differ to do so honestly, not to sell out Australia for a few thousand dollars."

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has been conspicuous in her lack of comment on Jian Yang and on the role of Chinese influence in New Zealand politics. She has also not criticised China directly over its South China Sea incursions or the persecution of minorities in China.

She should draw a line under New Zealand's acquiescence to China and review the transparency of the Electoral Finance Act in relation to overseas influence. She should call for Jian Yang to resign from Parliament at the least, and follow the example of her Australian counterparts by asking for an official inquiry into China's influence in politics here.

The Prime Minister talked a good game about human rights and sovereignty at the United Nations recently. How serious is she when her own party's finances may be affected by pushing back against China?

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