New Zealand's opposition leader Simon Bridges talks to reporters at Parliament in Wellington, New Zealand Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2018. Former lawmaker Jami-Lee Ross secretly recorded Bridges making inappropriate remarks as turmoil in the conservative National Party escalated on Wednesday. (AP Photo/Nick Perry)
New Zealand's opposition leader Simon Bridges in parliament on Wednesday © AP

New Zealand has become the latest western nation to be engulfed in controversy over political donations made by Chinese businessmen with links to the Chinese Communist party.

Simon Bridges, leader of the National party, on Wednesday denied allegations he had attempted to conceal a NZ$100,000 (US$65,900) donation by Zhang Yikun, a Chinese businessman and community leader in Auckland.

The allegations were reported to New Zealand police by National MP Jami-Lee Ross, who released a secretly recorded telephone conversation between himself and Mr Bridges discussing a NZ$100,000 donation and the possibility of recruiting more Chinese as election candidates. The tape also contains disparaging comments made by Mr Bridges against fellow National MPs.

Mr Ross has alleged that Mr Bridges asked Mr Zhang to split up the NZ$100,000 donation to the party into smaller payments to ensure they would not have to be disclosed under New Zealand’s electoral law. He claimed Mr Bridges’ actions amounted to electoral fraud, although the recording released to the media does not contain any direct evidence that Mr Bridges specifically asked for the donation to be split up.

Under New Zealand election law donations above NZ$15,000 must be disclosed.

Mr Bridges rejected the claims on Wednesday, where he described Mr Ross as a terrible person and alleged he had defamed him. “Jami-Lee Ross is a person who lies and leaks and, in this conversation, he deliberately tried to set me up,” said Mr Bridges.

He said the tape recording showed he had done nothing wrong and said the NZ$100,000 was seven donations from eight people. He confirmed he had attended a dinner in May with Mr Zhang where the donation was discussed.

Grant Duncan, a political commentator in New Zealand, said the link between the dinner, the donation and the discussion about more Chinese candidates raised questions over Chinese influence in New Zealand politics. He said the tape would prove damaging to Mr Bridges’ leadership.

Anne-Marie Brady, a professor at University of Canterbury, said Mr Zhang’s associations appeared to be typical of the United Front Work Department, which is a branch of the ruling Communist party.

Mr Zhang was born in Guangdong, southern China, and served in the Chinese military before moving to New Zealand in 2000, becoming a prominent businessman and leader of the Chinese community in Auckland. He has kept close ties with the Chinese government.

From 2013 to 2016 Mr Zhang was a member of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference of Hainan, an advisory body to the Chinese government, according to a Chinese government website.

In August this year he attended a meeting of expatriates and returned overseas Chinese in Beijing — an event also attended by President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang, vice-president Wang Qishan and other senior Chinese Communist party figures, according to local media reports.

Last month in New Zealand Mr Zhang was awarded a prestigious national honour for his services to the Chinese community and business ties between the two countries.

Among the achievements cited by New Zealand’s governor-general was his founding of the Chao Shan General Association, an organisation focused on the Chinese community in New Zealand.

The Australian arm of the Chao Shan organisation was considered by two academics in Australia to be part of China’s United Front network in that country, according to their submission to the Australian parliament in 2018.

Mr Zhang could not be contacted for comment.

Additional reporting by Nicolle Liu

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