Foreign Affairs

Chinese dissident community mourns deaths

New Zealand’s Chinese dissident community is mourning the loss of pro-democracy campaigners. Laura Walters reports on the impact to the community

New Zealand’s Chinese dissident community says the deaths of two campaigners in a recent car crash is a tragic loss for New Zealand’s pro-democracy movement.

Xi Weigo (48) and Wang Lecheng (47) were killed in a serious crash on State Highway 1 in Tokoroa on July 21. Yu Hongming (Freeman) was also seriously injured and is in ICU at Waikato Hospital.

The three were part of a group of eight Chinese activists travelling to Parliament to protest the Chinese Communist Party’s influence and interference in New Zealand and to deliver a petition, when the crash happened.

The petition called on the Government to place further focus on Chinese state political interference in New Zealand.

And it said the New Zealand-Chinese diaspora community felt unsafe, that they felt the CCP’s “full infiltration” of their community, and that community members were experiencing pain and fear because of this.

The petition has not yet been delivered to Parliament. 

Members of the pro-democracy movement are shocked, and say the loss of two community leaders will impact awareness of these issues across the country.

The men were instrumental in raising the profile of CCP interference here, both among the Chinese diaspora community, and mainstream New Zealand.

“Our New Zealand democracy movement has suffered tragic losses.”

Xi was Chairman of the New Zealand Branch of The Federation for a Democratic China, Wang was a member of the Independent Chinese PEN Centre - a global coalition of writers - and Yu is the secretary general of the New Zealand Values Alliance.

All three men were active campaigners for democracy and freedom, and outspoken against CCP influence, interference and United Front work in New Zealand.

They were often seen at protests, including recent rallies opposing Beijing’s extradition bill in Hong Kong, and at demonstrations against the persecution of Falun Gong practitioners. They also lobbied Parliament to strengthen New Zealand’s democratic processes through protests and petitions.

Chen Weijian, a fellow pro-democracy campaigner and publisher of dissident newspaper Beijing Spring, was travelling as part of the group - but in a different vehicle - on the day of the crash.

Chen said the men were “martyrs of democracy and freedom”.

“Our New Zealand democracy movement has suffered tragic losses.”

Xi, a former member of the people’s Liberation Army, opposed corruption in China and was detained by police. He joined the democratic movement when he moved to New Zealand. Those who knew him said he would always rush to the front of protests.

Chen said Xi was “an organiser and a leader”.

Wang worked as an engineer in China, but moved to New Zealand to flee persecution, where he actively participated in democratic activities.

Chen said Wang wasn’t much of a speaker, but he was good at writing, and often wrote about the pro-democracy movement.

“Our New Zealand democratic movement team is a very united team. Not only do we have the same philosophy, but we also help each other in life and have a brotherly friendship.”

Yu is active in lobbying the Government and Parliamentarians to take action against CCP-interference.

He has twice appeared in front of Parliament’s Justice Select Committee to give evidence for its inquiries into foreign interference.

Freeman Yu with China expert Anne-Marie Brady after submitting to select committee inquiry into foreign interference last year. Photo: Lynn Grieveson

In recent years, Yu has worked with the mainstream English-language media to raise awareness of the pro-democracy cause and of the CCP’s United Front work, and had been instrumental in raising awareness outside of the Chinese diaspora.

Chen said the grief currently felt by New Zealand’s pro-democracy community was “unbearable”, and the psychological trauma would be difficult to heal.

“Our New Zealand democratic movement team is a very united team. Not only do we have the same philosophy, but we also help each other in life and have a brotherly friendship.”

At the moment friends and members of the community were comforting family members and handling funeral arrangements, as well as accompanying the injured, he said.

“When these are over, when you calm down, the real pain will come. It's like losing siblings.”

Xi leaves behind a wife, a teenage daughter and a primary school-age son. He was the sole earner in his family.

Wang's family is in China and their situation is unknown.

A picture of the crash that happened on SH1 in Tokoroa. The group was travelling to Wellington to deliver a petition to Parliament. They had been stopping to hand out pamphlets in small towns along the way. Photo: Twitter

Falun Gong practitioner and Chinese dissident reporter Daisy Lee said the deaths and injuries would cause “vital damage for the Chinese democracy movement organisations in overseas China”.

“On top of these heavy prices paid by their lives, and the suffering of their families, is the loss for New Zealand.”

Lee said living in New Zealand had not been easy for Xi, Wang, or Yu. This was the reality of being a Chinese dissident, she said.

They faced difficulties due to language and financial barriers.

All three chose to work as Uber drivers so they could spend time with their families and pursue their activism. But this brought financial instability, especially during lockdown.

And Lee said these men had to overcome fear and intimidation from some radical members of the pro-CCP movement. Yu has publicly spoken about his experiences in the past, and reported some incidents to police.

They also feared for the safety of their family members in China.

Lee said their biggest disappointment was what they believed was a lack of action and care given to the issue of CCP interference by New Zealand politicians.

But they remained determined to raise awareness, she said.

“They should have been treasured instead of being ignored.”

“New Zealand lost the two heroes who have been effortlessly committing themselves to exposing the CCP's expansive ambitions and evil nature to increase public's awareness therefore knowing how to protect themselves.

“They should have been treasured instead of being ignored.”

University of Canterbury China expert professor Anne-Marie Brady said their deaths were "a devastating loss for NZ Chinese civil society”.

She added that people were worried about Yu, who remained in the ICU.

Brady appeared in front of Parliament’s Justice Select Committee on Thursday, to give an oral submission on foreign interference in local body elections. 

During the hearing Brady mentioned the crash, and said it had added to the fear and vulnerability felt by the New Zealand pro-democracy community.

Like Lee, Brady urged the Government to give time and attention to community groups like those led by Xi, Wang and Yu, when engaging with the New Zealand-Chinese community, rather than focusing on pro-CCP and United Front organisations.

Questions were also raised about the circumstances of the crash, during the select committee hearing.

Police said the crash investigation was ongoing.

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