OPINION

Stuff continues to drip out unsavoury facts about Chinese involvement to subvert our democracy. We all know about both Labour’s and National’s dodgy donations, where the idiots at the Serious Fraud Office comprehensively destroyed any credibility they had by failing in all of their prosecutions because of the ham-fisted way they tried to shoehorn Electoral Act offences into the Crimes Act. And lookee here: who do we find?

Zhang Yikun’s interest in befriending politicians went beyond large donations to National and Labour. He was also courting mayors at both ends of the country, cultivating relationships on behalf of officials in China. Stuff Circuit’s Louisa Cleave and Paula Penfold look at the connections, and who benefited from that.

When called upon, they stepped up for Zhang Yikun.

Phil Goff, a former Labour leader, Minister, and Auckland Mayor who was about to become New Zealand’s High Commissioner to the UK proffered a character reference.

So did ex-National MP Eric Roy, who with Goff co-signed Zhang’s nomination for a Royal Honour, and former Southland Mayor, Gary Tong, who went on two trips to China with the businessman.

Artist and veteran activist Tame Iti, on the trip with Tong, and Maori Party president John Tamihere rounded out the high profile supporters when Zhang was sentenced on a charge of obtaining by deception, in relation to a $100,000 donation to the National Party made in June 2018.

The conviction was quashed by the Court of Appeal in November 2023, with the judges saying there was “no doubt” that the National Party and Electoral Commission were “deceived by [Zhang and his co-accused]”.

However, no evidence was put forward that they personally benefited, directly or indirectly, from the donation and that meant “no conviction was possible”.

Stuff

Why am I not surprised to find John Tamihere involved with this dodgy Chinese businessman?

Former Auckland Mayor Phil Goff provided the character reference he gave the court for Zhang’s sentencing but we’re unable to publish the details because the court did not release it.

Goff put his name forward to assist Yikun Zhang at various times in his political career: nominating him for a royal honour, supporting the Chao Shan bid to host the Teochew international convention and writing the character reference for sentencing.

Now New Zealand’s High Commissioner to the United Kingdom, Goff stressed that our questions about his reference for Zhang were not relevant to his present role.

“The reference was based on my knowledge of Mr Zhang and was factual in basis.”

Subsequent inquiries by Stuff Circuit, along with evidence presented at trial, show Zhang was seated at the VIP table for Goff’s 2016 mayoral campaign fundraising auction, which raised more than $366,000.

Stuff

Perhaps the Foreign Minister might like to reassess the High Commissioner role of Phil Goff now he is linked to a dodgy Chinese businessman?

Zhang Yikun began his adult life in the People’s Liberation Army and, in an online profile, has spoken about being invited by the Overseas Chinese Affairs Office to participate in a military parade in Tiananmen Square, on September 3, 2015.

“As a veteran I felt immense pride when I saw how strong the country had become,” a translated copy of the article says.

“As overseas Chinese, we should not only contribute to the economic development of the host country, but also unite the vast number of overseas Chinese and contribute our humble efforts to establishing friendship between the host country and the motherland.”

Following his time in the military, he worked in the transport department of a provincial government and was put through post-graduate studies at the Academy of Social Sciences.

Zhang told an interviewer he was on a modest wage of 800 RMB (around $200) per month when he moved to New Zealand in 2000, joining his wife who was studying at Massey University.

Stuff

Earning $200 a month before coming to New Zealand and is now a multi-millionaire…hmm…interesting.

Professor of China politics at the University of Canterbury, Anne-Marie Brady, says Zhang’s links to the CPPCC demonstrate how well he is connected to the political system.

“When I looked at the extent of his interests and connections in China, it’s really extraordinary. There really isn’t anybody like that, anyone else like that in New Zealand, but also internationally,” says Brady.

“The CCP wants to shape and control and utilise the overseas Chinese diaspora around the whole of the world, not just the People’s Republic of China. People who’ve got ancestral links back to Chao Shan are a very, very important interest group for the CCP and Zhang Yikun is a prominent figure.”

Zhang established the New Zealand Chao Shan Association in 2015 and remains its honorary president, connecting to local and national politicians through the organisation.

Stuff

I’m not sure we need these folks here in New Zealand.

Brady has a view on his interest in local government, saying it centres around promoting China’s Belt and Road Initiative through the development of sister-city relationships.

“Zhang Yikun was encouraging those mayors – that he was on good terms with – to get involved in Belt and Road activities.”

By 2018, Zhang held the prominent position as head of the international Teochew Federation and travelled to Hong Kong for a gathering which included municipal government leaders and government ministers.

He was quoted in the media as promoting stronger overseas ties and the Belt and Road Initiative. He specifically noted the sister-city relationship he was trying to establish with Southland Mayor Gary Tong.

The Shantou government secretary thanked Zhang “and spoke highly of his broad thinking and broad vision”, according to a media report. “He will pay attention to the implementation of the three suggestions put forward by Chairman Zhang Yikun.”

Tong was on his second Chao Shan Association-funded trip to sign an MOU with Shantou in October 2018 when news broke that Jami-Lee Ross was alleging wrongdoing over a $100,000 donation to the National Party.

The Mayor leapt to Zhang’s defence, stating emphatically that Zhang was “not the alleged donor of the funds’’.

(The sentencing judge would later say the donation came from Zhang and he “must have known the donation was being concealed’’ and he wanted to avoid public disclosure.)

In answer to questions arising from his relationship with Zhang, Tong told the Southland District Council that the purpose of their two overseas trips was to discuss the sister-city relationship.

“To date these have not progressed,” he said.

Stuff

So Gary Tong is a Chinese shill, just like Bob Carr.

While the WEF boss likes to boast about ‘pentrating zee cabinets’, the Chinese are seriously doing exactly that or at least trying to.

Let’s hope Stuff reveals more in coming weeks.


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As much at home writing editorials as being the subject of them, Cam has won awards, including the Canon Media Award for his work on the Len Brown/Bevan Chuang story. When he’s not creating the news,...