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Latest China GDP Figures Show Stable But Challenged Growth

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IF THERE IS a scintilla of concern for authorities in the third-quarter GDP growth figure, covering July-September, it is that the tariffs imposed by the United States have not had much time to have a material impact.

At 6.5% year-on-year, the third-quarter number represents the slowest quarterly growth rate since the first quarter of 2009 in the immediate aftermath of the 2008 global financial crisis. However, it is still in line with the official growth target for the year. For the first nine months, GDP grew at an above-target 6.7%, according to the National Bureau of Statistics, which generally portrays the economy as “running within reasonable range in the first three quarters, and [continuing] to stay stable with good growing momentum”.

However, as the economists like to say, all the risks are on the downside: Trump’s tariffs; the ticking debt time bomb; and the pains of rebalancing.

In particular, with the Trump administration ramping up its tariffs in the current quarter and no resolution to the trade frictions between the two countries in sight, further policy support for the economy is going to be needed. However, policymakers’ scope to stimulate the economy is limited by high debt levels, in part taken on to finance the infrastructure investment boom that was the stimulative response to the 2008 financial crisis.

Giving banks more freedom to grow their loan books, trusting their credit judgements are better — or less politically swayed — than they have been in the past, will be preferred to increasing direct government spending. There will some of that, though, too, if growth is seen as slowing uncomfortably fast once the current round of US tariffs takes effect, or is followed by another.

Investors are less than convinced. Hence the raft of bullish statements from President Xi Jinping’s top economic adviser and the heads of the securities regulator, the combined insurance and banking watchdog and the central bank urging investors to stay calm as the main stock market index neared a four-year low.

However, the important words are yet to be spoken. Those will exchanged between Presidents Xi and Donald Trump when they meet at the G20 leaders’ summit in Buenos Aires at the end of November and may give an indication of which direction the trade disputes between the two countries are headed in.

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Fan Faces Fine

FAN BINGBING, THE film star not seen in public since June, has been fined 883 million yuan ($130 million) for tax evasion and other offences, state media says. She will avoid criminal charges and prison time if she pays up by a year-end deadline.

Unconfirmed reports in Hong Kong said she has also been banned from working as an actress for three years. It would be unusually for such a ban to be announced by authorities in the absence of a conviction.

A contrite posting appeared on Fan’s Weibo account today, although there is still no indication of her whereabouts.

Her agent remains in detention as a broad investigation into entertainment celebrities’ tax affairs continues. Fan was the highest earning Chinese celebrity last year with an income of 300 million yuan, according to Forbes magazine’s reckoning.

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VAT And China’s Other Taxing Problems

CHINA STARTED TO replace its Business Tax with a value-added tax (VAT) in 2012 when a pilot scheme was launched in Shanghai. VAT has since been steadily expanded, both geographically and sectorally.

Earlier this month, following an executive meeting of the State Council, chaired by Prime Minister Li Keqiang, plans were announced for streamlining the administration of VAT and acknowledging that it has become a universal national tax.

The service sector first saw the tax in May last year when it was applied to property, financial and consumer services sectors. At the same time, VAT was extended fully nationwide.

Authorities say that between then and June, the switch to VAT has saved businesses 85 billion yuan ($12.8 billion) in taxes, providing an important boost to the ‘rebalancing’ of the economy towards consumption. Total tax savings since the pilot scheme started is put at 1.6 trillion yuan.

In July, the four VAT brackets (17%, 13%, 11% and 6%) were reduced to three with the elimination of the 13% bracket. Agricultural products, tap water, publications and several other ‘13%’ goods were moved down to the 11% bracket, though that still leaves more VAT tiers than the international average.

The new plans foresee digitization of the tax system, simplifying procedures for tax filing and switching from physical to electronic versions of the invoices-cum-receipts (fapiao) that serve as legal proof of purchase for goods and services. Fapiao are a key component of enforced compliance with China’s tax law as they compel companies to pay tax in advance on future sales.

The VAT fapiao is also used for tax deduction purposes within VAT, so digitising the whole process should streamline the accounting.

The tax is still referred to as “the VAT reform pilot program” though that status as a pilot looks like ending de jure as well as de facto; the State Council executive meeting also indicated that more detailed national VAT legislation would be forthcoming.

There is more work to be done on standardising it as a national tax. There are still inconsistencies between sectors in the rates applied to the same goods and services. Also, some tax payers are not able to make full VAT deductions. A further issue to address is compliance costs for taxpayers with multiple business locations.

One major issue that a national VAT does not address is how the tax take is shared at the provincial level. (Germany and Japan, for example, use allocation rules based on population and aggregate consumption, respectively.)

However, China has a bigger problem of fiscal redistribution to tackle. The country has the largest share of local government spending in the world, largely because public services and the social safety net (health, education, welfare, etc.) are centrally mandated but delivered and paid for at the local level. Many federal countries decentralise their social insurance system, but China is a rarity in having both its public pension system and unemployment insurance managed at the local level.

Yet, since the fiscal reforms of 1994, provinces and municipalities have negligible revenue raising powers of their own. Further, although 60% of taxes are collected by local government, those taxes are handed over to central government with some to be returned via revenue-sharing and other transfer schemes through rules that are still not completely transparent.

Transfers from the central government were supposed fully to finance local-government deficits since provinces and municipalities were barred from issuing debt.  In practice, however, local governments were given increasingly large unfunded mandates. Because of the prohibition on issuing debt, they resorted to selling land and using off-budget special-purpose vehicles to borrow and spend on infrastructure, starting the infamous local-government debt bomb ticking.

Local governments debt had reached the equivalent of around 40% of GDP by 2015.

A fiscal reform plan was announced in 2016 to address the misalignment, but it will take a comprehensive imposition of taxes such a market-value-based property tax, local surcharges to personal income tax and maybe even an additional provincial-level VAT — though that is difficult technically to administer; few if any countries have pulled it off.

It will also mean converting the pilot scheme for issuing and trading municipal debt started in 2014 when back door borrowing through special-purpose vehicles was banned, into a national muni-bond market. That, in turn, will require broader financial-system reforms.

Those are proceeding at a cautious, measured pace. Short-term stability and state-centric control is the current leadership’s instinctive approach. That may change after the forthcoming Party congress, but, more likely, it will not. In that context, streamlining VAT to puts greater taxation capacity in Beijing’s hands makes political as well as economic sense.

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US Imposes More North Korea Sanctions On Chinese Firms

THE UNITED STATES has given another turn to the financial-sanctions screw it is driving into North Korea. The US Treasury has added six Chinese and Russian individuals and ten organisations with financial ties to Pyongyang’s weapons program to its list of entities banned from conducting business with U.S.-linked companies and individuals.

Most notable among the latest additions is Mingzheng International Trading Ltd, which Washington considers a front company for North Korea’s state-run Foreign Trade Bank, which itself has been subject to American sanctions since 2013. In June, the US Department of Justice filed suit against Mingzheng for laundering money on behalf of blacklisted North Korean entities, seeking to seize $1.9 million of the firm’s funds.

These latest sanctions appear to target coal importers and agencies supplying North Korean labour to foreign countries in its continuing attempt to sever Pyongyang’s supply lines of hard currency needed to fund its nuclear and missile programmes. In the same vein, the US had sanctioned Bank of Dandong, bank, along with Dalian Global Unity Shipping and two Chinese citizens, Sun Wei and Li Hong Ri, in June.

The United States charged that “at least 17%” of the $786m in customer transactions conducted through Bank of Dandong’s  US correspondent accounts from May 2012 to May 2015 involved “companies that have transacted with, or on behalf of, US and UN-sanctioned North Korean entities”.

The bank which is mainly owned by municipal agencies, is small in the order of banks; its assets were only $10.7 billion as of the end of 2016. A bond issuance prospectus last year revealed that the bank a 1% stake in Dandong Xinliu Group, a state-owned company engaged in trade with North Korea.

Unlike the UN sanctions recently announced, which required lengthy negotiations with Beijing, this latest round appears to have been imposed unilaterally by the United States, as evidenced by China’s reaction which was to say the Washington should “immediately correct its mistake”.

For his part, Kim Jong-un has ordered a step-up in the production of warheads and solid-fuel rocket engines for long-range ballistic missiles, taking some of the wind out of the sails of United States officials who have started to suggest that the possibility of a resumption of talks on a negotiated settlement might be appearing on the horizon.

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China’s Press On Academic Freedom

Cambridge University Press, a leading academic publisher whose China Quarterly is one of the leading English-language social science journals devoted to China has reversed its decision to comply with the demands of China’s censors to block sensitive content.

The university press had initially removed some 300 China Quarterly articles on politically sensitive topics from its website in China on the instruction of the media regulator on penalty of not being allowed to publish at all in China.  The press changed its mind following protests, including a petition published by academics from around the world, condemning restrictions on academic freedom of thought.

It was a dilemma that many foreign businesses have faced: the choice between being shut out of the Chinese market for refusing to comply with authorities’ controls of markets or suffer reputational risk outside China by knuckling under. In information markets, the reputational risk of complying with controls on freedom of expression is potentially a higher cost for an academic institution that it would be for a commercial technology or media company. Online content providers,

Chinese and foreign, have been a particular focus of the censors’ attention this year, as online content, previously more laxly regulated than offline media, has been brought under the same control regime as traditional print and broadcast media.

Tech groups and media companies have bowed to government demands to close down hundreds of mobile video platforms and promised to work more closely with state media. Under the new cyber security law that came into force on June 1, only those online content creators who have been issued with a media licence are permitted to upload videos featuring news or political commentary.

This has reinforced Chinese firms’ pre-emptive self-censorship, and more foreign firms to accept specific demands.

Beijing has to tread a careful line with foreign academic publishers. While censoring politically sensitive material is one thing — and social scientists in Chinese universities, once an important source of policy advice to government, have come under greater freedom of expression constraints since President Xi Jinping took over in 2012 — it is another cutting off the country’s scientists and technologists from the latest foreign academic research in those fields.

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China’s ‘Achilles’ Heel’ Of Debt

THE IMF’S LATEST Article 4 consultations report on China’s economy retraces some well-trodden ground. While edging up its projections for China’s growth projections, the Fund again underlines the growing risk from debt in the medium term.

Arguably this is the greatest macroeconomic risk that China faces and which the Fund says needs to be addressed now if sustainable growth is to be sustained. It summarises that risk in a supplementary note to the main report thus:

International experience would suggest that China’s credit growth is on a dangerous trajectory with increasing risks of disruptive adjustment and/or a marked growth slowdown.

Managing the debt issue is inseparable from rebalancing the economy, away from infrastructure investment and export-led growth to domestic consumption.

Progress in rebalancing, the Fund acknowledges, is being made, particularly in reducing industrial overcapacity. Borrowing by local governments is being made more transparent, and regulators have started to address financial sector risks.

The Fund, though, calls, as it has repeatedly done in the past, for the pace of reforms to accelerate, taking advantage of the relatively robust growth the economy is now enjoying.

Its check list of five action points will be familiar:

  • boost consumption by increasing social spending by the government and making the tax system more progressive;
  • increase the role of market forces by reducing implicit subsidies to state owned enterprises and opening up more to the private and foreign sectors;
  • deleverage the private sector by continuing the recent regulatory tightening in the financial sector and greater recognition of bad assets in the financial sector;
  • ensure macroeconomic sustainability by focusing more on the quality of growth and less on quantitative targets; and
  • improve policy frameworks so that the economy can be better managed.

The fund particularly recommends accelerating the reform of state owned enterprises by moving social functions away from them and opening their protected sectors to more private and foreign competition.

There will be a cost to that which will strain the financial system. Bankruptcies will rise with the elimination of blanket state guarantees and lenders that have made uncreditworthy loans will get into trouble. The political concern is that strain on the financial system turns into social stress.

IMF China reforms scorecard August 2017

As this Bystander has noted before, policymakers have been steadily if cautiously managing down the GDP growth rate for several years, mostly by reducing too high investment and too rapid credit growth. They have been less active in opening up replacement sources of growth, notably by opening up to the private sector.

The fund also lays great importance on the need to liberate private savings for consumption by increasing public spending on health, pensions and education, three areas in which its spending is well below the OECD average, and by increasing social transfers to the poor, who are disproportionately greater savers than the poor in other countries,

Again as this Bystander and many others have noted before, the longer China delays tackling the structural underpinning of its debt load, the longer resolving them will take and the greater the risk of not doing so becomes.

This is an opportune moment from an economic point of view to do so. Growth in the first half of the year was more robust than expected with both the global economy and financial conditions being benign. Domestically, the effects of cutting industrial capacity are starting to work through, bolstering profits and areas of the private sector where state-owned enterprises are largely absent, such as e-commerce are showing exemplary dynamism.

Also, balance-of-payments and exchange-rate management have been adept while some old-school fiscal stimulus six to nine months ago has also kicked in.

Markus Rodlauer, deputy director of the IMF’s Asia and Pacific Department, put it this way:

The situation at this point right now…should be used as an opportunity…to bear down and to buckle down and continue with this financial sector adjustment, which is really the Achilles’ heel now of the economy.

Once the 19th Party Congress due to be held in October or November is out of the way, and assuming it has not changed politics appreciably, that may happen more visibly.

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Djibouti Bound

Chinese warships leaving Zhanjiang, Guangdong province, China on July 11, 2017 bound for China’s first overseas military base in Djibouti. Photo credit: Xinhua/Wu Dengfeng.

CHINESE MILITARY PERSONNEL are now en route for Djibouti where they will garrison China’s first overseas military base, which it started building last year at a cost of $590 million.

The photo above shows the departure from Zhanjiang in Guangdong province of the South Sea Fleet’s Jinggang Shan, a Yuzhao class Type 071 amphibious transport dock that had previously been deployed in the search for the missing Malaysia Airlines Flight 370,  along with a second PLA-Navy ship, China’s sole semi-submersible Donghai Island class naval auxiliary ship.

The Horn of Africa country, only half as big again as municipal Beijing, is already home to US, French and Japanese military bases with a Saudi Arabian one, like China’s, under construction.

China’s base will be used for supporting peacekeeping (Beijing has deployed its first UN peacekeeping combat troops in South Sudan), international anti-piracy operations off the Somali coast and in the Gulf of Aden (in which China has taken part since 2008) and humanitarian aid.

It will also provide advanced support, should it be needed, for the more than 250,000 Chinese now working in Africa — and the Chinese investments where they work. Evacuations of nationals have already been needed in Libya and Yemen.

China stresses that Djibouti will be a logistics or support, not military base. The question is, however it is described, whether it is the first of one, several or many such overseas beachheads.

The US defence department’s recent annual report to the US Congress on China’s military prowess took this definitive view:

As China’s global footprint and international interests have gown, its military modernization program and become more focused on supporting missions beyond China’s periphery, including power projection, sea land security, counterpiracy, peacekeeping and humanitarian assistance/disaster relief (HA/DR). In February 2016, China began constitution of a military base in Djibouti that could be complete within the next year. China likely will seek to establish additional military based in countries with which it has long-standing, friendly relationships.

The US defence department pinpoints Pakistan as best fitting that bill. Given the growing economic interests at stake in the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor, which runs through both some insecure but strategically important territory, and China’s extensive role in building a deep-water port at Gwadar on the Arabian Sea coast, that seems a logical deduction.

However, many other countries will not be receptive to the notion of hosting PLA bases, and Chinese military doctrine sees prowess in cyber, space and information warfare as more potent than building a traditional network of military allies.

Indeed, current doctrine sees power projection assets as a vulnerability in modern warfare. That alone will be cause for China to move cautiously on establishing further bases.

At the same time, Beijing will use China’s economic linkages to cement support among those with similar security interests and to deter adversary power projection in third countries, particularly that by the United States.

For now, gaining access to foreign commercial ports for as a logistics base and for pre-positioning of support of “far seas” deployments by the PLA-Navy is likely to be the order of the day. That, anyway, is what would be needed for the HA/DR operations that Beijing is likely to concentrate on while its military learns to find its way around the world.

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