In this week of scattershot political theatre, $100,000 from a Chinese businessman hung silently in the background like Chekhov's gun. During his epic Tuesday presser, MP Jami-Lee Ross carefully stated he didn't think Zhang Yikun did anything wrong by trying to donate money that Ross alleges was illegally separated into legal-seeming bits.
This seems fair enough. There is no need to be spontaneously paranoid about all ethnic Chinese donors and "foreign interference". But we need to be realistic about the bigger picture.
Putting aside whether Mr Zhang (MNZM, gonged by Labour) himself has any links to the Chinese Communist Party, there is no reason anyone who actually is overly close to the Chinese Government would think it wrong to hand over bulky donations to New Zealand politicians, given the embrace of CCP-linked cash by senior figures on both sides of the House for years.
There has been little informed public debate of the scale of such funding, or what it means for the independence of New Zealand's foreign and domestic policies.
Only one China expert here has spoken out consistently on this, Professor Anne-Marie Brady, infamously subjected to burglaries alleged to be the work of Chinese state operatives. When other local experts publicly equivocate or fail to comment about Brady's research into the United Front campaign in New Zealand, the public is led to believe the scale of Chinese government influence here can't be that bad, or at least that the situation isn't clear.
In my experience, wonks from across the academic, business, quango and government sectors are extremely concerned about the extent of China's influence campaign here. But they can't say much publicly or their own Chinese government-linked funding, or their access, or their negotiations – even in some cases, their families – could come under pressure.
These constraints are impacted by the dearth of independent funding of China research, and the lack of funding for research institutions generally. It's a small-country weakness that is easy for any state or lobby group with deep pockets to exploit.
You don't need to feel literally threatened for there to be a chilling effect. People are behaving "normally" — diplomatically, pragmatically, individually, or adhering to organisational directives. I don't blame them. But cumulatively, the result is unacceptable: a wall of silence where there should be informed critique, transparency and debate.
This chilling effect is harming Chinese people in New Zealand. Many people cannot differentiate Chinese people from the actions of the CCP (I mean hey, many people can't tell a Chinese from a Korean), but this is made worse when hardly any authorities on the topic will address the issue openly. Concerns can only erupt as xenophobia against the Chinese and "Asian" population.
At the 2013 census, New Zealand's Chinese population was still only half China-born. We have long been diverse communities from different countries and generations, with different political values, who love to secretly trash-talk each other. CCP-linked politicians parroting Xi Jinping and promoting Beijing's Belt & Road priorities don't speak for at least half of us.
It's endlessly irritating and insulting that both Labour and National have lazily assigned Chinese communities as the fiefdoms of politicians openly backed by the Chinese government.
The more the CCP tries to insert its agenda into wider New Zealand Chinese spaces while claiming to speak for all overseas Chinese, the more private animosity there is towards Mainlanders among the non-Mainland-born, even as we try to maintain our own "united front" against racism.
The irony is that of all the Chinese communities, the Mainlanders are the ones with the least control over what their birth country's Government is doing.
Mainland-born community leaders know they have to work with or for the CCP to get ahead. It doesn't mean they are spying all day. Many of those linked to the CCP are working for their communities out of genuine belief that China and New Zealand's interests are aligned.
But it's time to get real about lines of accountability, and the motivations of those to whom they are accountable.
It's tragic that only Western countries with openly xenophobic leadership such as the US and Australia, have found the political capital to address China's influence campaigns.
New Zealand needs to be the unicorn that can resist CCP influence as a way to uphold the rights of its own Chinese populations to political independence. We deserve better than to be trapped between knee-jerk racists and Xi Jinping Thought. Abandoning us to this fate is racism too.
• Tze Ming Mok is a writer and social researcher specialising in race and ethnicity, whose parents are from Singapore and Malaysia.