National and Labour quietly agreed last year that two Chinese MPs would retire at the same time because of growing security concerns about their relationship with the Chinese Government.
National MP Jian Yang announced his retirement on July 10 and Labour MP Raymond Huo on July 21.
POLITIK has learned from multiple official and political sources that the retirements followed intelligence briefings of both parties. The almost simultaneous announcements were orchestrated by the offices of Jacinda Ardern and Todd Muller working together.
Those moves seem to be part of a cooling of the relationship between New Zealand and China which was exemplified yesterday with a warning from Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta that a confrontation over trade with China was inevitable.
New Zealand could find itself at the heart of a “storm” of anger from China, she warned, saying exporters needed to diversify to ensure they could survive deteriorating relations with Beijing.
Mahuta’s public comments come after private warnings along similar lines from the Prime Minister to at least one major agricultural exporter.
And they follow Mahuta’s earlier warning to the New Zealand China Council, saying exporters should not put all their eggs in one basket.
The comments have come on the eve of a visit by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison next weekend and may well have been designed to assure Canberra that New Zealand is more or less on the same page on China.
As part of the preparation for that visit, the Secretary of Foreign Affairs, Chris Seed and the CEO of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, Brook Barrington, were in Canberra for meetings last Friday.
There is a widespread view among western countries that New Zealand’s relationship with China is too close.
A report published in 2018 by the Canadian Security Intelligence Service called “: China and the age of strategic rivalry” said: “New Zealand provides a vivid case study of China’s willingness to use economic ties to interfere with the political life of a partner country”.
“An aggressive strategy has sought to influence political decision-making, pursue unfair advantages in trade and business, suppress criticism of China, facilitate espionage opportunities, and influence overseas Chinese communities,” it said.
There is a feeling in Australia that New Zealand might have been too naïve in its relationship with China; that it has not recognised that President Xi Jinping is very different to his predecessor, Hu Jintao.
The Australian Labor Party’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson, Penny Wong, delivered a lengthy speech on how her party saw relations with China a week ago.
It revealed a scepticism about China that is only now starting to become evident in New Zealand.
“While it’s possible to draw historical parallels between China now and in history, the China the world is experiencing under Xi Jinping is demonstrably different from that which we have all seen in our lifetimes,” she said.
“In pressing its interests, China is more assertive.
This should come as no surprise. All great powers will come to assert their interests.
But assertion has often transmuted into aggression.”
She cited China’s actions in the South China Sea and the way in which the imposition of national security laws had completely” undermined the “One Country Two Systems” arrangement.
Thus both the Prime Minister and Mahuta are obviously under pressure to take a harder line with China on issues like Hong Kong or the Uighurs.
Mahuta seemed to acknowledge this in the interview with “The Guardian.”
“We cannot ignore, obviously, what’s happening in Australia with their relationship with China. And if they are close to an eye of the storm or in the eye of the storm, we’ve got to legitimately ask ourselves – it may only be a matter of time before the storm gets closer to us,” she told the newspaper.
But as well as external pressures on the Government, there are concerns about the way China and its surrogates go about lobbying in New Zealand.
As an example, an MP has told POLITIK of a case he knows about involving a Chinese New Zealander who found that comments about Hong Kong he made on WeChat drew a direct response from the Chinese Embassy, who were obviously monitoring it.
The Christchurch academic and China critic Anne-Marie Brady, in 2017, named the Labour MP Raymond Huo as someone who worked very closely with China’s representatives in New Zealand but produced no evidence to sustain that argument.
Nevertheless, Huo stood down as chair of Parliament’s Justice Select Committee in 2017 when it conducted an inquiry into political interference by foreign countries in New Zealand.
Statement from Professor Brady: “I am an expert on the Communist Party of China, I research their domestic and foreign policies. My job is not to praise the Chinese government, nor am I opposed to it. I simply study it.”She says she has produced proof about the linkages between Raymond Huo and the representatives of the Chinese government in New Zealand. “The level of evidence I provided in the references of my paper is to the level of proof that it can be used in a court, and similar evidence has in fact been used in a court setting. If you could read Chinese, as I can, and understood the CCP system, as I do, you would understand the importance of the evidence that was provided in my paper which showed that Raymond Huo, did, as I stated “work very closely with the PRC authorities in New Zealand”. That sentence is not actually very controversial.” POLITIK accepts her points.
Then in July last year, Huo said that though he had submitted his nomination form for the last election within Labour’s internal timeframe, “the subsequent lockdown enabled me to spend more time with my family and reflect on my political career.”
But if Huo’s connections with China were opaque, those of National MP Jian Yang were out in the open.
In September 2017, the Financial Times said: “New Zealand’s national intelligence agency has investigated a China-born sitting member of parliament in connection with the decade he spent at leading Chinese military colleges. Jian Yang, an MP for New Zealand’s ruling National party, spent more than ten years training and teaching at elite facilities including China’s top linguistics academy for military intelligence officers, the Financial Times has learnt.”
Yang denied the claims and said he was loyal to New Zealand.
But then- Prime Minister Bill English said he had been aware “from early on” of Mr Yang’s “military training, including military intelligence”, but declined to say whether he had been warned by SIS about Mr Yang. English said conversations with the country’s intelligence agency covered “operational matters” there were inappropriate to discuss publicly.
Yang had enabled close ties to develop between the National Party and China which were said to have assisted the party to raise large sums of money from within the Chinese community in New Zealand.
Those ties will feature later this year in an upcoming trial involving former National MP Jami Lee Ross, who has been charged by the Serious Fraud Office with offences under the Electoral Act related to fundraising.
Auckland’s National Party office walls sported a picture of Yang with President Xi, and as recently as October last year, after Yang had retired, the party’s president Peter Goodfellow was involved in a zoom meeting with the deputy head of the International Department of the Chinese Communist Party, a picture of which was subsequently tweeted.
When Yang announced his retirement last year, Foreign Minister and NZ First leader Winston Peters said, “It is breathtaking, given New Zealand’s long democratic tradition, that National has tolerated the intolerable by protecting Mr Yang from being held to account by our media.
“He has never satisfactorily explained his past links with the CCP and their military intelligence-linked language schools, nor has he or the National Party ever apologised for his misleading statements when he applied for citizenship.
“It is even worse than when last in Government National for over 16 months allowed Mr Yang to sit as a member on the Foreign Affairs, Defence and Trade Select Committee until he was quietly replaced.
“This is shocking when you think about it, a low point in protecting some of New Zealand’s most sensitive relationships.”
But it would seem the presence of both Huo and Yang had got too much for our two main political parties and the election last year gave them both the opportunity to have the MPs retire.