Opposition leader Simon Bridges' office took serious risks by leading planning of a controversial trip to Beijing and appearing to sideline officials, a prominent China expert says.
Documents from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs show National MP Jian Yang set up the initial itinerary for Bridges' visit in September - which included a meeting with a high-ranking Communist Party figure described as the head of China's secret police - while Government officials only became involved in the later part of the planning.
Yang faced questions in 2017 after it was revealed he had spent 15 working with Chinese military intelligence before moving to New Zealand and had taught English at an elite spy school, the Luoyang Foreign Languages Institute. He has called suggestions he was a spy a "smear campaign".
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University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady - an expert on the Chinese Communist Party and foreign political interference - said New Zealand parties had traditionally been highly sensitive and careful about foreign affairs issues, and that what appeared to be minimal involvement of Mfat in the process was worrying.
"The CCP government under Xi Jinping is increasingly conducting foreign policy on a party-to-party basis, and explicitly excluding, or going around, the usual foreign ministry-to-foreign ministry channel," Brady said.
"It is thus very telling that Mfat were cut out of National Party's China visit planning on this occasion."
In a statement accompanying the files, Mfat would only say it "provided support for elements of this visit".
The documents show Mfat officials were present when Bridges met with high-ranking Politburo member Guo Shengkun.
Guo heads China's powerful Central Political and Legal Affairs Commission, which effectively oversees law enforcement and security agencies in the country.
A draft recounting of the meeting by an Mfat staffer who was present shows that Guo raised "strong party-to-party" relations during the meeting, among other issues such as trade ties and China's foreign policy.
Brady was also critical the initial itinerary did not specify which Politburo member Bridges would be meeting.
"The risks of the approach followed by the National Party on this occasion were exposed when Simon Bridges and National's spokesperson on GCSB and SIS, Gerry Brownlee, were scheduled by their CCP-government hosts to meet with Guo Shengkun," she said.
"Bridges had no idea who he was meeting with."
In a statement, Bridges said the Ministry was "heavily involved in organising the China trip from start to finish".
An email exchange in files shows officials tried three times to offer support to National before the party's foreign affairs spokesman, Brownlee, stepped in and gave Mfat approval to help co-organise the trip, just over a week out from the departure date.
Mfat staff then became involved in co-ordinating the logistics, although much of the schedule appears to already be largely unchanged.
"It is certainly unusual that National specifically excluded Mfat from organising the schedule of the China trip, and instead allowed their MP [Yang], who has this history, to organise it," Brady said.
Yang did not reply to requests for comment on Thursday.
A spokesman for National confirmed funding for the trip had come out of a Parliamentary budget for trips by the Leader of the Opposition. No party politics were conducted as the part of the visit, he said.
The Mfat documents also note National MP Kanwaljit Singh Bakshi organised the India portion of the trip.
Former Prime Minister Helen Clark weighed in on the issue this week, tweeting it was surprising National had not organised the trip through Mfat.
"When I was NZ Leader of Opposition, provision was made for an annual overseas mission, always organised through Mfat, one assumes because of the potential for impact on NZ foreign relations," she said.