White Guys With 'Chinese' Names: 'Well, This is Awkward'

White Guys With 'Chinese' Names: 'Well, This is Awkward'

This is a picture of my friend Henry Ling.

According to Labour’s analysis, he has a 78% chance of being Chinese. If his name turned up in the party’s leaked housing data, he would be regarded as one of the foreign investors ravaging Auckland’s property market. Henry lives in Auckland. His last name comes from Sussex. "I guess this explains why I always get political propaganda in the post written in Chinese, wishing me a happy Chinese New Year," he said.

David Tong, a thoroughly Pakeha climate campaigner, is similarly confused. "I thought I was a New Zealander who spent all his savings on travel, postgrad study, and bikes. Turns out that I'm apparently 37% a cashed up foreign investor? Not sure which 37% though."

As Henry and David will attest, it’s crude and inaccurate to use a list of Chinese-sounding last names to make judgements about Auckland’s property market. Even if it’s not racist in-and-of itself, it’s guaranteed to stir up racism toward Chinese New Zealanders. It’s also incredibly mockable. The jokes write themselves. Or, in the case of the Young Nats' now-defunct howkiwiareyou.nz, randomly generate.

It’s a shame there’s so much heat in this story, because it’s desperately in need of some light. Labour’s race-baiting is at heart an effort to shout into a statistical void. Despite the average cost of a house in Auckland drawing even with Greece’s national debt, there is still no register showing how many non-resident investors are injecting cash into the market. In the absence of actual statistics, we get Phil Twyford counting Zhangs in his lounge and shovelling his findings off to the Herald.

Shamubeel Eaqub, the economist and author of Generation Rent, says the panic about foreign buyers is probably unfounded. Partial data he purchased from CoreLogic suggested about 8% of house sales are to foreign buyers. There was no obvious bulge in empty homes, or in the number of people buying houses without mortgages: both characteristics that suggest buyers living offshore. He says getting some facts would be easy, and would stop a lot of xenophobia. It would mean requiring extra data in the property title, with buyers disclosing their tax number, tax residency status and whether the house is being bought to live in or as an investment. Second - buyers should have to get a New Zealand bank account to settle the transaction, he says.

“The fears around foreign buyers are persistent - and they grow uglier in the absence of facts. There is simply no reliable data source to understand who is actually buying houses, whether they are New Zealand-based, or if the money is ‘dirty’. Yet this lack of data – and, simultaneously, the questions about people’s intent when purchasing properties - could be easily resolved.”

Some moves aimed at collecting more data were introduced in Budget 2015. But in the end the Government is tentatively shutting the barn door after the horse has bolted, taken on a new identity and started a new life in Greenland. And it's probably not even shutting the right door.

I'm 30. People my age and younger are unlikely to be able to buy a house. That's the failure of successive Governments. They did nothing while baby-boomers rubbed their hands together over the QVs on their bungalows, obsessively reading twice-daily Herald stories joyously exclaiming about how house prices have hit a new all-time high. When that generation finally mutters its last ‘fiscal restraint’, it will leave behind a country where young people struggle to buy a house in its largest city without the help of a big inheritance. As Peter Calder wrote, that’s a failure to get angry about.

But by all means, blame the Chinese.


Hayden Donnell is not an economist and has no economics training. He is just an angry young person.