Simon Bridges is accused of seeking donations from a Chinese Communist Party linked businessman.Allegations the leader of New Zealand’s largest political party tried to hide a donation from a businessman with Chinese Communist Party links have reignited concerns about foreign political influence.
‘Rogue’ centre-right National Party member Jami-Lee Ross dramatically quit this week and laid a complaint with police alleging his former boss and the leader of the opposition, Simon Bridges, asked for a $NZ100,000 political donation to be divided up to avoid revealing its origin.
Mr Bridges firmly denies any wrongdoing and says that, while he had dinner with Chinese businessman and community leader Zhang Yikun and discussed donations, the money received was from a number of individuals.
A secret recording of Mr Bridges discussing donations also included him talking about potential new candidates for his party, including a business partner of Mr Zhang’s, and saying “two Chinese would be nice”.
There is no suggestion Mr Zhang acted improperly in any way.
A colleague currently travelling with him in China told New Zealand media he said he was not the donor and was deeply disappointed to be caught up in the allegations.
But questions have been raised about Mr Zhang’s connections to the Chinese government, with reports he spent five years as a member of the Communist Party’s Consultative Conference in Hainan Province.
University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady – who rose to prominence with a 2017 report into China’s increasing influence on New Zealand – says the saga is a chance to begin a long-needed review into New Zealand’s electoral practices.
“[There’s been a] failure of our political parties to prevent foreign government interference into our democratic political process,” she told Radio NZ on Friday.
“All the major political parties are affected in one way or another so there’s a real opportunity to pull together … New Zealand has been warming up to this conversation.”
There needed to be a look into MPs’ conflicts of interest, including whether politicians were also members of political parties overseas, Professor Brady said.
A National Party spokesman did not reply to request for comment, but Mr Bridges told media he had nothing to apologise for, and was proud his party talked about multicultural representation.
The allegations are not the first time questions about National’s connection to the Communist Party have been raised.
Last year, it was revealed MP Yang Jian had previously taught English at an elite Chinese spy school, although there were no suggestions of impropriety.
Separately, in a testimony earlier this year to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, former Central Intelligence Agency China expert Peter Mattis accused New Zealand of a lack of action over Chinese political influence.
While had looked at new laws to combat external influence, New Zealand politicians on both the left and right had denied there was a problem, he said.
Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern earlier this year said New Zealand was vigilant against interference and policies were being regularly reviewed to ensure their effectiveness.
Meanwhile, a small petition from pro-democracy members of Auckland’s Chinese community was lodged with New Zealand’s parliament this month calling for an inquiry into meddling.