A New Zealand lawmaker has accused the opposition National Party leader of corruption, claiming that he sought to hide the source of a donation from a Chinese businessmen who has been linked to Beijing's international influence strategy under the ruling Chinese Communist Party's United Front Work Department.
National Party MP Jami-Lee Ross said he had been told by his own party leader, Simon Bridges, to split the 100,000 New Zealand dollar (U.S.$66,000) donation from businessman Zhang Yikun, to hide the source of the funds.
Ross told reporters that he plans to provide evidence to police and to release a secretly recorded phone conversation with Bridges, who denied the accusation, and said that he'd done nothing wrong.
Zhang, who was awarded an "Order of Merit" by the New Zealand government in June for "services to New Zealand-China relations and the Chinese community," has been linked to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) by Canterbury University expert Anne-Marie Brady, an expert on Chinese influence overseas.
"The most concerning aspect to the controversy over National's hidden donations is that the source of the funds is a leader in #CCP united front work activities," Brady said via her Twitter account earlier this week.
Last November, Zhang led a political and business delegation to Beijing, meeting with an official of the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office of China's cabinet, the State Council, Brady said in another tweet, linking to a report from TV33, a Chinese-language digital broadcaster owned by Chinese state broadcaster China Xinhua News Network TV.
Zhang told officials in Beijing that he would "unite the Chinese community in New Zealand and fully cherish this opportunity to tell the story of China," TV33 reported at the time.
He also expressed his gratitude for the "concern and support" given by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office, it said.
Since arriving in the country in 2000, Zhang founded and still leads the New Zealand arm of the Chao Shan General Association.
The Australian branch of the organization, the Chao Shan Association of Commerce, was listed as a United Front affiliate in a submission on Chinese influence to the Australian parliament earlier this year.
Repeated calls to the Chao Shan General Association rang unanswered during office hours on Friday.
Not the first of its kind
Chen Weijian, the New Zealand-based editor-in-chief of the political magazine Beijing Spring, said the alleged donation revealed by Ross isn't the first of its kind.
"It looks like a donation from a businessman, but who is that businessman, actually?" Chen said. "The Chinese Communist Party has been gradually making donations to political parties here and there via their agents in Western political circles."
"This is a very serious problem ... and yet the government here in New Zealand doesn't seem to be taking much of a stand," Chen said. "The New Zealand's relationship with China is too cozy, with a lot of vested interests tied up with it."
On Friday, Brady also reported via her Twitter account that security cameras have now been installed at her office at Canterbury University after an unexplained "burglary" in which the laptop she used to write her research and articles on China's overseas influence went missing.
Brady this week also called on governments to carry out in-depth probes into the Chinese Communist Party's activities overseas.
"Governments need to conduct their own in-depth investigations into CCP united front work activities within their countries and then devise a strategy to counteract them," she wrote in an article published in the Party Watch annual report on Thursday.
"Governments must define China’s meddling in their internal affairs as a national security issue and treat it accordingly," Brady said, suggesting updates to laws governing the funding of elections, protocols around conflicts of interest for serving and retired public servants and politicians, and sales of strategic infrastructure.
Overseas Chinese targeted
Commentators said ethnic Chinese populations overseas are also being targeted by United Front tactics, which often rely on affiliated organizations promoting "friendship and cooperation" between China and their home country, and need the support of their governments to resist Beijing's attempts to silence criticism of the CCP far beyond China's borders.
Writer and social researcher Tze Ming Mok said Chinese influence is already raising concerns in academic, business, civil society, and government circles in New Zealand.
"But they can't say much publicly or their own Chinese government-linked funding, or their access, or their negotiations – even in some cases, their families – could come under pressure," he wrote in an op-ed piece in the New Zealand Herald on Friday.
He said a lack of independent funding in New Zealand made it particularly vulnerable to "any state or lobby group with deep pockets."
Tze said there is "a wall of silence where there should be informed critique, transparency and debate" on the topic, and that the chilling effect is "harming Chinese people in New Zealand."
Brady meanwhile called on governments to establish better contacts with their ethnic Chinese populations.
"[Governments should] work with these communities to support them to become resilient and autonomous from CCP attempts to control them," Brady wrote.
Classified information exchanged
Earlier this month, the five nations in the world’s leading intelligence-sharing network confirmed they have been exchanging classified information on China’s foreign activities with other like-minded countries since the start of the year, Reuters reported.
Officials told the agency that the enhanced cooperation amounted to an informal expansion of the Five Eyes group on the specific issue of foreign interference, with expanding Chinese influence as the main focus.
China has rejected accusations that it is seeking to influence overseas governments and that its investments are politically driven.
Australia last December tightened rules on foreign lobbying and political donations, while broadening the definition of treason and espionage, while the U.S. has legislated to make it easier for the government to block certain kinds of investment.
Earlier this month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence accused Beijing of interfering in the political and economic life of the U.S. by "rewarding or coercing American businesses, movie studios, universities, think tanks, scholars, journalists and local, state and federal officials."
Reported by Ng Yik-tung and Sing Man for RFA's Cantonese Service, and by Xi Wang for the Mandarin Service. Translated and edited by Luisetta Mudie.