OnPoint by Keith Ng


My last name sounds Chinese

I don't own a house, but if I bought one, I hope that cynical politicians wouldn't blame people whose "last name sounds Chinese" for..

driving up house prices beyond the reach of hard-working Kiwi first home buyers

..as if people whose "last name sounds Chinese" can't be a hard-working Kiwi, as if we are taking their houses.

And if I became a property investor, I hope that I'd be judged like every other property investor, and not hung up as a political scapegoat as if we were some kind of foreign parasites, but they are wise stewards of property reaping the rewards of thrift and hard work.

I hope they wouldn't treat us as if we were not them, based on whether our "last name sounds Chinese".

Here's the thing with Labour's "analysis" of Auckland house sales, which the Herald are running with. Behind the curtain, there's nothing more to it than going through house sale records and asking "do these names sound Chinese?". It cannot tell you whether these people are speculators, investors or owner-occupiers, and it cannot tell you whether they are offshore, immigrants from the 90s, or if their ancestors have been here since the goldrush.

You can't magically MATH your way from a last name to a residency status. They have one piece of real data: "39.5% of last names in a list of house sales sound Chinese". All the assertions that Labour are making beyond this are complete bullshit.

Real-estate figures leaked to the Labour Party, which cover almost 4,000 house sales by one unidentified firm from February to April, indicate that people of Chinese descent accounted for 39.5 per cent of the transactions in the city in that period.

Yet Census 2013 data shows ethnic Chinese who are New Zealand residents or citizens account for just 9 per cent of Auckland's population.


"It's staggering evidence that strongly suggests there's a significant offshore Chinese presence in the Auckland real estate market. It could not possibly be all Chinese New Zealanders buying; that's implausible."

What Phil Twyford has done is just a sleight-of-hand with percentages:

  • 39.5% of house buyers are ethnically Chinese...
  • ...but the resident Chinese population in Auckland is only 9%.
  • 9% of residents can only buy 9% of houses...
  • ...so 30.5% must be non-residents! Ta da!

Here are the same numbers, in absolute terms:

  • 3,500 house buyers are ethnically Chinese...1
  • ...but the resident Chinese population in Auckland is 126,0002.
  • 126,000 residents can only buy 126,000 houses...
  • ...so, uh, yeah.

It is entirely plausible that 126,000 people can buy 3,500 houses. He goes on to claim that:

Mr Twyford said it was unlikely local Chinese — whom he did not wish to criticise — could be responsible for so many purchases, as they made up only 5 per cent of top income earners (those on more than $50,000 a year).

  • First, Chinese migrants generally come with a lot of cash - because having a lot of cash is a criteria for immigrating to New Zealand. So they don't need to have a high income to have enough cash to buy a house.
  • Second, there are 293,103 people in Auckland earning more than $50k a year (Census 2013). 5% of that is 14,655 - no small group.
  • Third, it makes no sense to assume that only those earning $50,000 a year can afford to buy a house, because only 26% of people in Auckland earn more than $50k, but 61.5% of homes are owner-occupied (both from Census 2013).

    Once again, Twyford is using sleight-of-hand, comparing the 5% figure with 39.5%, as if you could rub two numbers together and they'll transmute into something else.

    Twyford is doing this because all he has is "39.5% of last names in a list of house sales sound Chinese". He wants it to mean "a lot of houses are bought by overseas Chinese". But equally, it could mean that Chinese people in Auckland:

    • Are new migrants without a house
    • Have more money
    • Move more frequently
    • More likely to be of household-forming age
    • More likely to get help from their parents
    • More likely to invest in real estate

    There's a long list of possibilities, but in the absence of evidence, that's all they are: Possibilities. Wanting to believe in one doesn't make it true.

    There are more problems with the list itself:

    • Is that one company where Labour got their leaked list from representative of the rest of the market?
    • Is that one period (Feb-Apr) representive of the full year (are there seasonal effects)?
    • Is that period comparable to previous years?
    • If Chinese people are disproportionately engaged in speculation, are they disproportionately selling as well as buying (that's how speculation works, right?)?

    But ultimately, these problems only render it unscientific and utterly useless, which is the least of Labour's problems.

    The subtext of this story is that people with Chinese-sounding names are foreigners full of cash who are buying all our houses and chasing hardworking Kiwis out of their homes. This is straight-up scapegoating, placing the blame for a complex, emotive problem at the feet of an ethnic group.

    Let's be grown-ups about this. Twyford can say “we're not criticising local Chinese” all he likes. Hell, he might as well tell us that some of his best friends are Chinese. But when his headline is screaming “the Chinese are buying all our houses”, when he says a “tsunami” of Chinese money is heading to our shores, it's clear that he's blaming Chinese people, and it's obvious that's the message that will be received.

    Phil Twyford, Labour, and the Herald – you are fueling racial division in this country. You are encouraging people to question whether ethnically Chinese people ought to be able to buy houses. You are saying that people with “Chinese-sounding names” are dangerous foreigners who will destroy the Kiwi way of life with real estate purchases.

    You have done this, and you can't shirk responsibility for your actions by trying to deny what you are doing, as you are doing it.

    And for what? Look, I agree that hot money is a dangerous thing for a small, open, export-reliant economy. And a tax regime that favours non-productive activities like property speculation is crazy. These are real political issues that I feel strongly about. These are also straightforward problems which any half-competent political party ought to be able to communicate, without using the Yellow Peril as the boogeyman.

    This is cynical, reckless dogwhistling. Like Winston Peters, just without the smirk.


    1 If we assumed that the 39.5% figure is accurate and applies to the rest of the 8790 houses sold in Auckland during that period (REINZ figures), then 3500 houses would be sold to people with Chinese-sounding names.

    If 9% of the Auckland's population of 1.4m people is Chinese, then there'd be 126,000 Chinese in Auckland.

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