Comment: Beware the media's 'yellow peril' in property reporting

House for sale.

Have you noticed the stark racism in Australian media reporting of the property market?

If you are a regular reader of the Australian media you will have undoubtedly noticed that people from Chinese backgrounds are brazenly buying houses and investing in property in this country, and as a result they are apparently destroying your children’s future.

With headlines such as 'Cashed-up Chinese are pricing young out of the property market' (SMH, 14/3) and 'Chinese rush for Australian homes here to stay' (SMH, 6/8), the Fairfax papers in particular have been making it clear that the Asian hordes our forefathers feared are once again becoming a threatening presence. But this time, instead of weird languages and customs, they’ve got loads of cash. 

If countries were constructed the same way as school-yard cricket teams then second-generation Chinese would be first picked every time.

Media hysterics are often fueled by ingrained cultural traits, and in Australian culture buying a house is arguably the primary objective of The Game of Life. So anything (or anyone) that could place an obstacle in front of this objective causes grave concern (whether these obstacles are real or perceived). And of course, grave concern is the product that the media most loves to sell.

However, this concern is based on a superficial assessment of the situation. As Bernard Keene wrote in Crikey:

'There are legitimate grounds for concern about housing affordability, but they’ve got little to do foreign property buyers, whether Chinese, Canadian or any other ethnicity (sic, Canadian not being an ethnicity). They’re related to land supply, planning laws, development approval processes, NIMBYism, the balance between local councils and developers financing the necessary infrastructure for new housing, and tax expenditures that encourage investment in existing housing stock.'

Which actually makes anything that expands the number of dwellings available a significant factor in keeping house prices stable. Without this increased investment demand would far outpace supply and affordability would be non-existent.

Of course, with the vast majority of people in Australia either being homeowners or hooked on the dream of an ever increasing asset, the government is incentivised to maintain this array of protectionist measures. It’s the basic maths of democracy.

It's an old narrative, but without the playfulness

What is driving this media narrative of fear about Chinese property investment and immigration is the rise of a new world player. Our previous two world hegemons (the UK and the US) have shared our physical features, so we haven’t needed to be suspicious of them. Especially as our own history is so intertwined with both; first as a colonial offshoot, and secondly as regional Deputy Sheriff.

But the anti-Americanism that has come with US world power has always had a playful tone to it, knowing that these were our tribal cousins. Whether or not the rise of China will share the same playfulness looks unlikely if media outlets like Fairfax continue to pander to this anxiety. 

Whether Australia is receiving direct immigration, or simply investment in the property sector from Chinese investors, the outcomes are actually greatly positive.

The myth of foreign investment is that it sucks money out of the country, never to return. Yet, even if this was entirely true, there’s a moral lapse in believing that local people are of greater worth than those in other regions of the world. It may be a human instinct to favour this kind of tribalism, but it’s hardly advantageous to the species as a whole.

Despite China’s recent growth in wealth, it is still a much poorer country than Australia on GDP per capita terms. Surely we as humans wish to continue to lift people out of poverty, regardless of which country they reside in? The fact that China’s growth has also been so massively beneficial to Australia is the beautiful win/win of economic exchange.

While most anti-immigration narratives focus on a irrational fear of “importing problems”, it seems with Chinese immigration the opposite is the case.

Second-generation Chinese have become the most enfranchised group in the country: educationally, skillfully, financially, and socially.  If countries were constructed the same way as school-yard cricket teams then second-generation Chinese would be first picked every time.

But rather than rejoice at all this wonderful talent we have in the country, there is a failure to see how this increases our capabilities overall and instead we have developed an angst that whitey may not get picked. 

The idea that the success of an individual comes at the expense of someone else is a long disproven economic fallacy, however, the myth remains. Articles such as one in The Age last December titled 'Chinese Buyers In Rush For Melbourne’s Prestige School Zones' (19/12/13) irresponsibly perpetuates this fiction.

Whether Australia is receiving direct immigration, or simply investment in the property sector from Chinese investors, the outcomes are actually greatly positive.

That we live in a globalised age where people with means are able to move relatively freely adds a physical presence to China’s rising power. That this human capacity is transferring itself to Australia and increasing our own prosperity and global influence seems to be ignored.

Of course, China itself has a recognisable soft power issue, and that this rubs off on people of Chinese background is not surprising, but it is also not fair. The actions of a state should never be used to condemn individuals. Particularly the actions of a non-democratic state.

However, fearing Chinese immigration and investment still reeks of conspiracy theory, some kind of strategic plan by the Chinese Communist Party to undermine countries from within. It’s fanciful. It gives these people no credit for wanting to be invested in their new home or region of business, or no credit for wanting to leave an authoritarian regime for an open liberal-democracy.

Due to the increasing wealth of Chinese people, and the fact that China is a country that limits its people choices, Australia will continue to be an attractive option to live, buy and invest. A media narrative that employs a means-tested racism and superficial blame game to demonise this phenomenon risks fuelling a nasty social reaction.

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