The PM was to be the star attraction at an event promoting a Chinese alcohol brand and run by a former National MP – but he’s now pulled the plug
Prime Minister Chris Hipkins has withdrawn as guest speaker at a gala dinner next week hosted by a business group founded by ex-National MP and Chinese spy school lecturer Jian Yang and presented by a major Chinese liquor brand.
Hipkins and the Small Business Minister Ginny Andersen were to be the star attractions at the event, staged with naming rights sponsor Gu Jing Gong, (Ancient Well) the maker of a prominent Chinese baijiu or white liquor.
On Wednesday, as Newsroom raised questions about the PM’s awareness of those behind the event, his office advised the hosts he would no longer attend. However, the dinner, the first of the year for the NZ-Chinese Business Club, was still being advertised on Wednesday night with Hipkins in the star billing on that organisation’s website.
The business club, founded by Jian Yang and launched by former Prime Minister John Key in 2021, was listed in advertisements as the host, with the Auckland Business Chamber, led now by another former National leader Simon Bridges, as ‘partner’ for the Hipkins event.
Hipkins’ office told Newsroom, four hours after our inquiries about the Jian Yang group and the event, that he had accepted the invitation on the understanding it was an Auckland Business Chamber function that had been held for “a number of years”.
“He accepted on that basis, but subsequently is unable to attend. We have informed the chamber.”
Hipkins is in the UK for King Charles III’s coronation and political meetings and is due back in New Zealand on Monday morning. The defection of former minister Meka Whaitiri and the need to reshuffle roles and personnel in his ministry will have added to his to-do list upon his return.
Bridges, of the chamber, did not respond to Newsroom’s emailed questions over the event and Jian Yang’s business group. There was no mention of the Chinese business event on the chamber’s website late on Wednesday.
The prominent alcohol branding for the Chinese brandy was unlikely to have sat easily with a Labour Government whose predecessors legislated to limit alcohol advertising and messaging to promote public health. At such events a prized photograph for commercial partners and official hosts would be of the invited dignitary, in this case New Zealand’s Prime Minister, toasting and drinking the sponsor’s product.
But a deeper concern had been aired by some in the Chinese community about the hosting of the event by Yang’s Chinese Business Club.
It has among its members a trust that is a leading disseminator of official China-backed news source the People’s Daily here and in Australia. That organisation, the Australasia Cultural Education Trust, is reputedly close to the Chinese consulate in Auckland and the Embassy in Wellington.
Sensitivities are high in Canberra and at the Beehive over what is known as United Front activities by individuals and organisations backed by Chinese government and mainland-aligned entities in foreign countries to work with the Chinese diaspora and gain business and political influence.
Yang, a former academic who Newsroom exposed when he was an MP in 2017 as a former lecturer at a Chinese military spy institute, is noted for his deep contacts with influential mainland Chinese figures. He travelled with Key and Bridges to China and was credited with gaining access to leading officials, including a meeting for Bridges with a state security minister.
Separately, in 2022, donations from 2017 and 2018 to both National and Labour were central to a High Court trial brought by the Serious Fraud Office. The court heard details of the extensive political links of a wealthy Chinese NZ businessman, Zhang Yikun, and his business and community organisation. Zhang and two of his associates Colin and Joe Zheng, were found guilty of obtaining by deception and sentenced to community detention. Former MP Jami-Lee Ross, who had accused National of knowingly taking illegally broken-up donations from Zhang and the Zhengs, was one of four people acquitted.
That trial heard details of Chinese community banquet events at which Labour politicians including former Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern were hosted before the 2017 election, and of Bridges and other National figures hosted to exclusive private dinners. Substantial donations via auctions resulted in funding boosts for both parties.
One of the central witnesses in that trial was Andrew Kirton, a Labour official at the time of the dinners and banquets and now Hipkins’ chief of staff. Kirton was criticised by the defence counsel at times in the case.
Jian Yang stood down from Parliament at the 2020 election and formed his Chinese Business Club the next year, with Key launching it and posing in a group shot at the Northern Club. At functions through 2022, the club hosted prominent figures including Bridges, now Auckland Mayor Wayne Brown and Deputy Mayor Desley Simpson with her husband, former National Party president Peter Goodfellow.
On Wednesday, Hipkins’ office did not answer questions from Newsroom about its vetting of events and organisations offering to host the Prime Minister. But it did say the small business minister Ginny Anderson would still attend the May 10 event at the Cordis Hotel.
It didn’t directly address the appropriateness of a major liquor brand having naming rights to the dinner at which he or Andersen would speak, or promotions associated with it, but said many business associations’ events engaged a sponsor from within their memberships.
“The hosts are advised of their obligations,” a spokesperson for the Prime Minister said.