WELLINGTON, New Zealand (AP) — A surprising theme has emerged in New Zealand’s election campaign: racism.

Racially charged comments made by the leaders of two political parties and a candidate for a third have struck a jarring tone in this South Pacific nation of 4.5 million people, which generally prides itself on its tolerance. Political billboards have even been defaced with anti-Semitic slurs.

At Sunday’s campaign launch for the anti-immigration New Zealand First party, leader Winston Peters lit into the government for allowing farms to be sold to foreign buyers, including those from China.

“As they say in Beijing, two Wongs don’t make a white,” he said, drawing laughter from his Auckland audience but condemnation elsewhere.

“Politicians making fun of an entire race of people isn’t new but it’s disappointing and shameful New Zealand political leaders are still doing it in 2014,” said Susan Devoy, the country’s race relations commissioner. She added, “Winston Peters needs to know he’s not funny.”

Peters has not apologized. During a subsequent interview with Television New Zealand, he chuckled and said, “The truth is a Chinese guy in Beijing told me that, and he thought it was funny, and I still think it’s funny.”

Center-right Prime Minister John Key and his National Party are seeking a third term in the Sept. 20 election, while several left-leaning parties are trying to unseat him. Under the nation’s proportional voting system, small parties like New Zealand First, which won eight of 121 parliamentary seats in the last election, can play a big role in deciding who will govern.

China has rapidly become New Zealand’s largest export market, as well as an increasing source of visitors and migrants. Yet Chinese investment in New Zealand is relatively new and looked upon by some with suspicion.

Wealthy Shanghai developer Jiang Zhaobai caused an uproar here three years ago when he announced plans to spend more than 200 million New Zealand dollars ($169 million) buying 16 farms. His company, Shanghai Pengxin, is now seeking to buy another big chunk of farmland, causing renewed concern among some New Zealanders.

There have also been anti-Semitic slurs against Key, whose late mother was Jewish.

Steve Gibson, a candidate for the Labour Party, posted a message on Facebook describing Key as “Shonky Jonkey Shylock … nasty little creep with a nasty evil and vindictive sneer.”

‘For the Jewish community in New Zealand, they are hard-working, decent people and they don’t deserve to be brought into some sort of personal campaign that’s directed at me’

Gibson later deleted the post. He said he was repeating the comment of a friend and didn’t understand the anti-Semitic connotations of the word Shylock, the character created by playwright William Shakespeare. He said he thought it meant simply somebody who didn’t strike fair deals. He said he regretted writing the rest of the post as well.

The Labour Party, the largest opposition party, censured Gibson over the post but didn’t sack him.

A number of election billboards featuring Key have been defaced with anti-Semitic messages, something that was less common in Key’s previous campaigns. Key has denounced the vandalism, as have some of his opponents.

“I just find it disappointing for the Jewish community. I have a Jewish past which is extremely well known. My mother was Jewish, and some of my mother’s family went to the concentration camps,” Key told reporters this week. “But for the Jewish community in New Zealand, they are hard-working, decent people and they don’t deserve to be brought into some sort of personal campaign that’s directed at me.”

Jamie Whyte, the leader of the conservative ACT party, was also accused by some opponents of racism after delivering a speech in which he called for an end to the country’s affirmative action policies toward indigenous Maori.

“Maori are legally privileged in New Zealand today, just as the aristocracy were legally privileged in pre-revolutionary France,” he said, using a comparison that drew sharp criticism. Whyte went on in the speech to say it was absurd to consider Maori as privileged, given their lower life expectancy, incomes and educational achievement.

Candidates across the political spectrum say they hope the tone of the debate will improve.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press