Concern over Chinese political donations and the use of Chinese-owned dairy farms to launch industrial balloons which allegedly can be used for missile technology have electrified New Zealand’s election campaign, where Prime Minister Bill English has rallied to be in reach of a historic victory.
The governing National Party has kicked nine points clear of Labour on a vote of 46 per cent, putting Mr English in the box seat to be returned on Saturday.
The 1News Colmar Brunton poll showed Labour had dropped seven points in a week to 37 per cent under charismatic leader Jacinda Ardern, who has struggled to neutralise an attack by Mr English that Labour would increase income tax. Both parties were blindsided yesterday by a study into China’s “soft power” that tracked an increase in donations to New Zealand political parties as state-backed Chinese firms move to take strategic stakes in the country’s dairy industry.
The report by researcher Anne-Marie Brady, of the University of Canterbury, singled out a $100,000 donation last year by six Chinese donors who had attended a lunch with Mr English’s predecessor as prime minister, John Key, over the bid to change the New Zealand flag.
Professor Brady noted the Chinese donors want “the Union Jack removed from the New Zealand flag because it reminded them of the history of British imperialism in China”.
The report also addressed controversy over National MP Jian Yang, who allegedly taught Chinese spies English, according to media reports during the election campaign. Professor Brady claimed Mr Yang had a 15-year career in the People’s Liberation Army which he did not mention on his National Party online CV or the online CV provided for his profile when he was a lecturer at the University of Auckland.
He denied the spy claims, calling them defamatory and a smear campaign, but he has reviewed his New Zealand citizenship application to check he had declared his military background.
Professor Brady said New Zealand was of strategic interest to China for a number of reasons, including the responsibility Wellington maintains for defence and foreign affairs of the Pacific territories of the Cook Islands, Niue and Tokelau which “potentially means four votes for China” at international organisations.
New Zealand was a claimant state in Antarctica and one of the closest access points, an attraction because of Beijing’s long-term agenda for the polar region. The country also supplied nearly a quarter of China’s milk and China was the biggest investor in New Zealand’s diary industry. Trade between the two countries last year topped $23 billion.
Professor Brady identified possible military applications for technology tests allegedly carried out on dairy farms owned by Chinese firm Shanghai Penxin. These involved industrial balloons used to deliver broadband services. Treasurer Scott Morrison blocked the sale of cattle empire S. Kidman & Co to Shanghai Penxin on national-interest grounds. The largest property in the empire, Anna Creek, was partially inside a missile-testing range in SA.
“New Zealand is … useful for near-space research which is an important new area of research for the (People’s Liberation Army) as it expands its long-range precision missiles,” Professor Brady wrote. Mr English played down the revelations, telling The New Zealand Herald: “I don’t see any obvious sign of things that are inappropriate.”
Ms Ardern said she might pursue the issue through a review modelled on the one ordered by Malcolm Turnbull this year after ASIO warned the ALP and the Coalition about accepting donations from business figures close to the Chinese Communist Party.
Having been thrust into the leadership seven weeks ago, Ms Ardern, 37, brought Labour back from the political dead to overtake the National Party in the polls for the first half of the campaign.
The turnaround engineered by Mr English capitalised on an absence of detail in Labour’s tax plans and claims by Finance Minister Steven Joyce of a hole in the opposition’s costings. Senior economists backed Ms Ardern’s insistence that it was Mr Joyce who had the numbers wrong.
Last night in the last televised leadership debate, she challenged Mr English to “look me in the eye” and admit the claim was incorrect. “I stand by it,” he replied, prompting a withering response from Ms Ardern. “I cannot believe that two days out from an election that you can continue to mislead the New Zealand electorate like that,” she said. Mr English insisted Labour’s plan to fund additional health and education service by rescinding legislated income tax cuts worth $1000 a year to the average wage earner amounted to a hike.
The Colmar Brunton poll suggests Labour has peaked, but at 46 per cent Mr English would most likely need the backing of minority parties including Winston Peters’ New Zealand First to form government and deliver four consecutive terms of office for his conservative party. On a vote of 46 per cent, National could expect to win 58 seats, down two from what it secured in 2014.
By JAMIE WALKER