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.