Speaker by Various Artists


Identification strategy: Now it’s personal

by Tze Ming Mok

Last week I filled in a survey about what the NZ Labour Party should do with itself. Half-facetiously I wrote something like: “Do it like the right does it. Lie about your true beliefs to appeal to ‘middle New Zealand’, win power, then underhandedly push through a radical left-wing agenda to end poverty and inequality.’

Guys, this is not what I meant. Thanks for listening but, to employ an ancient saying of my culture, UR DOING IT RONG. And thank you Keith Ng , for so forcefully explaining many of the reasons why it is wrong, in the manner of a genteel professor tearing your face off and shoving it down your throat in a white-hot stats rage. 

To start with, like Keith I found it hard to separate my stats rage from my race rage.[1] Amid the clusterfuck of Chinese-house-craziness today, American real estate bots have started following me on Twitter. Not kidding.

Phil Twyford and the Herald deserved all they got from the Ng Army. Reporting or communicating statistics is one of the times when it is entirely right to shoot the messenger; to shoot him and stomp on his pitiful corpse. The messenger is the one who does all the harm. But as for the study itself? Let’s get to defending its very existence in a moment, but the methodology and conclusions?

I don’t have any problem with the suggestion that foreign PRC-based investors are buying loads of houses in New Zealand (as are foreign white people but no-one cares about them, because the narrative is about predation from China, not our own stupid lack of regulation).

And even though it’s easy to mock, I also think it’s quite likely that whatever Bayesian analysis the Labour Party used for the ‘Chinese-sounding names’ was a reasonable enough proxy for people of Chinese ethnicity. (Personally, I’d like to get Rob Salmond’s estimate of the probability of the unfortunate ‘Lena Mok’ being Dutch or German.) 

I would even go so far as to say that it’s pretty reasonable that when looking at the proportion of probable Chinese names in the Labour Party dataset as compared with resident Chinese population size, and controlling (or weighting) for demographic and income factors alone, that the overrepresentation of Chinese people buying houses suggests that they are not all local residents.

However there is no realistic way of even guessing the magnitude of that overrepresentation, because even with your Census-based weighting, there is no way of controlling for cultural factors among local Chinese when it comes to buying houses. This is because no-one has researched what they might be. Comparing us to Indians is not good enough, sorry.

Full disclosure: My Chinese parents have been living in Auckland for over 40 years, and in that time, have bought eight houses in their names and sold two. They fucking looooove buying houses. I think my parents caused the Auckland property bubble. If they did, it was because they bought into the ‘Kiwi Dream’ big time, like all the other idiots in this town – and because for immigrants, buying property means security and connection not foreignness and exclusion.  I don’t say this as some anecdotal evidence of how it might be possible that locally resident Chinese bought all the ‘Chinese name’ houses. I say it to show you that it’s very very hard for Chinese people not to take this personally.

Man, for Chinese immigrants in the West, buying houses is almost on a par culturally with food. It’s like you’re giving us shit for eating.

With Phil Twyford lying in a bloody puddle somewhere, my stats rage is somewhat cooler. But my old friend race rage is creeping back.  It doesn’t matter if 90% of those ‘Chinese sounding names’ really are PRC hot-money investors; for the rest of us under suspicion of being foreign, we know Labour was ready to throw us under the bus.

The Labour study is one of those bits of analysis that comes together because no other data is available to answer the question you really want answered; and is convenient simply because – and this is very important – Chinese people are identifiable.

If your identification strategy for locating the cause of the housing bubble boils down to ‘What minority group can we effectively single out because of their weird names?’, this is NOT SOMETHING YOU SHOULD EVER ADMIT. Not only does it make the Labour Party sound inherently racist and not to be trusted, it makes social science sound inherently racist and not to be trusted. In a perfect world, I’d be able to love them both unconditionally, and stats rage and race rage would not be a problem.

I can’t actually remember the last time that this much effort has been put by any political party into singling out Chinese people (as opposed to ‘Asians’) for their probability of being ‘foreign’.

And if Labour put this much effort into programming an algorithm to identify us, I wonder if it also estimated how many New Zealand Chinese votes this study would cost them.

The real question is not ‘oh, ha ha this doesn’t look like a very reliable method for guessing whether someone is Chinese.’  (It probably is).  It is not ‘could local Chinese possibly be buying all of these houses?’ (It is possible, but not very likely).

The real question is what did the Labour Party think it was doing taking this public.  If they just fucked up, so far so familiar. If they did this on purpose for well-calculated reasons – and it works – we Chinese-sounding named people are in way more trouble in New Zealand than we ever thought we would be again.

[1] Since I stopped being the shouty Asian girl on Public Address, I moved to London, studied quantitative research methodologies, and became better at maths than Keith. So I have stats rage/race rage confusion on a daily basis. 

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