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New Zealand scandal renews fears of China's 'United Front' influence

Authorities investigate alleged corruption with suspected Communist Party links

New Zealand opposition leader Simon Bridges speaks to reporters on Oct. 16 in Wellington, New Zealand.   © Getty Images

TOKYO -- New Zealand's opposition National Party is reeling after allegations that leader Simon Bridges took donations from an individual with suspected links to the Chinese Communist Party, fueling concern over Beijing's influence in the country.

On Oct. 16, Jami-Lee Ross, then a National party member of parliament, claimed that Bridges illegally accepted 100,000 New Zealand dollars ($67,700) from Chinese businessman Yikun Zhang, and in return added two businessmen to the party's candidate list. The National Party is the largest in the country's parliament. 

Bridges has denied the allegations and the authorities have launched an investigation into Ross's claims.

The 32-year-old Ross was an influential member of the National Party, and it has been suggested that his claims were prompted by infighting. He has left the party and is currently away from parliament on medical advice.

The scandal has renewed anxiety over Chinese influence in New Zealand politics. Just over a year ago, it emerged that Jian Yang, another National Party lawmaker,  had taught languages at a Chinese military academy, leading to suspicion of him being involved in espionage himself.

Yang denied being a spy and won a third term in the general election held shortly after the speculation surfaced.

In a report titled "Magic Weapons: China's Political Influence Activities Under Xi Jinping," University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady claimed that, under Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Communist Party had increased "United Front Work" activity, which aims to boost China's influence overseas.

Brady said New Zealand was a key target of the activity, and alleged that Yang has "had varying degrees of relations with united front organizations in New Zealand."

United Front Work is used by the party to form collaborative relationships with various forces outside the party. Former Chairman Mao Zedong once cited its work as one of "three magic weapons," along with military and party organization.

In February 2018, about five months after Brady's report was released, laptops and phones were taken during a break-in at her home, but the intruders left without touching other valuables. The New Zealand Police said in September that it was investigating the case in conjunction with the country's Security Intelligence Service and Interpol.

Concern over the activities of the United Front Work Department is also growing in the U.S. and Australia. The Australian parliament passed a law in June that requires lobbyists representing foreign governments or businesses to register. There have been calls to introduce a similar system in New Zealand.

Both the National Party and Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern's Labour Party have extensive ties to China.

New Zealand was among the first developed countries to recognize China as a market economy, and Wellington has signed a memorandum of cooperation with Beijing regarding China's Belt and Road Initiative.

The country is also part of the five-member United Kingdom-United States of America Agreement, along with Canada and Australia, under which participants share information from intelligence gathered through means such as wiretapping. Of these countries, which are sometimes referred to as the "Five Eyes," China is paying particular attention to New Zealand, according to Brady.

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