Sunday 12 July 2015

A Chen by any other name

This post originally appeared on The Co-Op, a blog of young(ish) writers of varying ideological and political perspectives.

On Saturday, the New Zealand Herald published an “special investigation” originally titled Who’s buying our houses?. In this article, data for almost 4,000 house sales in Auckland over the course of three months (Feb-Apr 2015) from one real estate firm is analysed in conjunction with Census 2013 data. It is claimed by the Labour Party that “ethnic Chinese” account for 9% of the Auckland population, but accounted for 39.5% of house transactions during that period. The kicker? The ethnicity of the individuals involved in the house transactions was based on surnames. A complicated sounding Bayesian analysis (which essentially means using probability and past data to predict future data) is used to justify how ethnicity is derived from surnames. In the process, we compare samples of 1.4 million and 4,000 and pretend that everything is okay. The claim is that “Chinese names make up about eight out of the 20 most common ones among Auckland residents but fill 19 of the top 20 places for house buyers.” Ignoring that a couple of the last names (Kim, Singh, Saur) aren't even Chinese, the insinuation is that Chinese people are buying more houses than they should, assuming that everyone should have an equal ability to buy a home.

Keith Ng rips apart the statistics here (tldnr there are many poor assumptions being made to arrive at this conclusion), and Rob Salmond, who claims to have done the quantitative analysis for the Labour Party, defends his work here (tldnr statistics isn’t perfect and this analysis is good enough).

The people who went through the data and reported it are quick to point out the caveats. House buyers sometimes buy via intermediaries such as trusts or lawyers. The data comes from only one agency that may be a biased source of information. The data is for a short period of time where seasonal effects may dominate. Surnames cannot prove whether a buyer is a foreigner or a local.

The people who did the analysis now seem to acknowledge that the data is poor. We feed garbage into the analysis, and we cannot expect anything other than garbage to come out. On the one level, the analysis and assertions made about race and surnames are deeply offensive and frankly unnecessary. On another level, this is simply poor statistics. The analysts should have said “look, we can’t make solid claims from this data, we’re going to get attacked on this”. Instead, they doubled down and said “we did our best with the data”. The conclusions drawn are meant to feed into a national policy debate and be relied upon – working with bad data is only going to lead to bad outcomes for everyone involved. With the many people involved, from the Labour Party to external statisticians to the NZ Herald, someone, somewhere along the line, should have said “we can’t publish this, it’s just not good enough.” That comes before we even get to "we can't publish this, it's offensive".

Knowing all of this, the Labour Party continued anyway and pushed housing spokesperson Phil Twyford forward. He told the NZ Herald: "It's staggering evidence that strongly suggests there's a significant offshore Chinese presence in the Auckland real estate market.” He told The Nation on TV3: “Nearly 40% of houses sold in that period went to people of Chinese descent.” He said on Twitter: “Just look at the numbers. Chinese NZers 9% Akl popn. People of Chinese descent bought 39.5% of houses sold by major Akl real estate firm. This is foreign money.” The message from Twyford is clear – foreigners, specifically Chinese, are responsible for driving up house prices in Auckland. How do we know? Because we looked at their last names.

Maybe the end conclusion is accurate and there is a problem that we need to deal with. But how we got there, and who this targets, is hugely problematic. According to the NZ Herald article, my last name, Chen, is the 6th most common last name in Auckland, while it is the 4th most common last name of people buying homes. The assertion is that the Chinese are buying more property than they should, driving up house prices and creating a property crisis. This implies that people with my last name are a problem.

I’ve written on being a 2nd generation Asian New Zealander before, and how being stuck between two cultures makes it difficult for us to “belong”. To be told that because of my last name, something I did not choose, that I am a problem for “honest hardworking Kiwis”, is crushing. My last name does not singularly define me. Using my last name to determine my “ethnicity” is both inaccurate and offensive. My last name should not indicate whether or not I am more or less likely to buy property in this country. I have roots in Taiwan, but I was born in New Zealand; just because my face looks Chinese and my last name sounds Chinese should not disqualify me from being able to live my life here.

This sort of thing does affect our lives. It feeds into how we are perceived as Asian New Zealanders (and to be clear that’s all Asian New Zealanders because racists tend to not bother to ascertain whether you’re Chinese or not before forming a view about you). We are going to increasingly be criticised and challenged just for trying to live our lives, because someone thought it would be a good idea to use surnames as a determinant of ethnicity. The NZ Herald article even admits that only 40% of people in Auckland with the last name Lee are Chinese. The entire analysis is based on shoddy assumptions (even if the analysis of it is good), but the statistics and conclusions drawn will make people feel more secure in their prejudices and make them feel more justified when they say "yeah, those Chinese are buying too many homes".

Most importantly, it makes me feel like I do not belong. It makes me feel like a drain on society, that I am somehow contributing to a problem when I have done my best for a country that I love. No matter how hard I work, I will always carry my last name with me, and if that is going to cause analysts and political parties to think that I contribute to a housing crisis, then there is little I can do. I can only throw my hands in the air at the futility of it all.

I am incredibly grateful for the opportunity to be educated, find employment, and live in this country. I have seen that our society has become more progressive and accepting as I’ve grown up. I want to be a fully contributing and participating member of this society. I don’t want to be part of the problem, I want to help. Phil Twyford is a good person who genuinely wants to make New Zealand better, and has said that he doesn’t want to offend local Chinese New Zealanders. I know that you didn’t intend to hurt people like me, but unfortunately we’re hurt all the same. To Phil and the rest of the Labour Party: if we have a housing problem, let’s talk about it, but let’s not make this a race/ethnicity problem too. This is not how we fix the problem, this is not how we get to a better New Zealand. My last name may be Chinese, but my identity is Kiwi.

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