Sunday, October 13, 2013

Lies, Damned Lies, and People's Daily Statistics

I have studied statistics three times in my life: for my Economics A Level, my BSc and my MBA.  Each time, I have learned enough to pass the required exam, then promptly forgotten most of it.  What has stuck with me, however, is a profound awareness of how statistical evidence can be twisted to support a point of view, and consequently a deep scepticism about many of the statistics I read.  Whenever I see statistics being cited to support an argument, I instinctively start to ask questions.
On TVB news last night, Caroline Mak, Chairwoman of the Hong Kong Retail Management Association, was attempting to argue that the influx of mainland shoppers was beneficial to Hong Kong.  In ten years, she said, retail sales in Hong Kong have gone up by 158%.  However, she admitted that the number of retail sector staff has only risen by 22%, and the number of shops by 13.5%.  This undermines her own argument, since it reinforces the belief of most Hong Kong people that the influx of mainland shoppers has done little to spread prosperity in the SAR - creating only a small number of extra jobs at the grassroots level, while bringing massive profits to the luxury goods chains and a handful of big commercial landlords.

Mak also argued that "retail space is often overlooked in land planning".  Really?  How come every single government proposal for the Wanchai-Central Shopping Mall Bypass included retail facilities, even though the government insisted that it made only the minimum necessary encroachment on the harbour?  How come the airport acquired a second terminal which serves more shops than airlines?  Let's get real here.

Even more unreal is the People's Daily article arguing that Hong Kong needs more mainland immigrants for its economic development.  Setting aside the article's (deliberate?) misquoting of Professor Chow Po-chung of CUHK, its statistics are highly questionable.  The education level of new immigrants, it claims, is continuing to rise, with 17% now having received tertiary education against 28% of the existing Hong Kong population.  However, this is an inappropriate comparison.  The Hong Kong figure includes many old people now in their 70s. 80s and above who never had the opportunity for higher - or sometimes any - education.  Since most new arrivals are in younger age groups, the appropriate comparison would be against the corresponding age groups in Hong Kong, and would certainly be far less favourable to the immigrants.

Much is being made of the need for more workers to support Hong Kong's growing elderly population, and the People's Daily suggests that the influx of new arrivals can help alleviate this burden.  However, Hong Kong government figures show that the majority of these arrivals fall into low income groups, with over half seeking public housing, and a large percentage also seeking to receive social security.  In other words, far from helping relieve the pressure on Hong Kong's beleaguered middle class, they are in fact adding to its burden.  Furthermore, the percentage from provinces other than Guangdong is growing, meaning that their children need additional educational support to thrive in local schools.

Disclaimer: this article only presents statistical analysis for academic research purposes.  I cannot suggest that pouring large numbers of lowly-skilled people into what is already one of the world's most crowded places may be a bad idea, in case I am accused of prejudice against them.  (But it is.)

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