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On This Day

THOUSANDS OF HONGKONGERS found a way to commemorate June 4 in the face of a public-health ban on the customary annual candlelight vigil in Victoria Park. Barriers set up around the park were trampled down and groups also gathered elsewhere in the city regardless of the 3,000 riot police deployed to enforce social distancing.

The remembrance was imbued with additional piquancy as it came within hours of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council passing the controversial national anthem law which criminalises disrespect of China’s national anthem. This is often booed or sung over at events such as football matches.

As with everything of late, the United States took the opportunity to needle Beijing over the date. US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo posted a photograph of himself meeting Tiananmen Square survivors, prompting a somewhat necessarily oblique response that China’s progress over the past 30 years showed it had taken the right path.

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China And FIFA: Keeping It Tight

THE REPUTATIONAL DAMAGE to the NBA, the globally expanding dominant professional basketball league in the United States, over its handling of a tweet supporting the Hong Kong protestors by an official of one of its teams does not seem to be deterring FIFA, world football’s governing body, from doing (more) business with Beijing.

FIFA is set to award hosting the finals of its inaugural world club championship in 2021 to China, according to press reports. The tournament is critical to FIFA to create an alternative revenue stream to its World Cups, but controversial within the game, and especially among the powerful European clubs. FIFA’s executive council is due to vote shortly on which country will play host, but China is the only candidate.

Football has just as covetous eyes as basketball when it comes to the Chinese market. The games of the leading foreign leagues are widely broadcast. The leading clubs around the world assiduously cultivate fan bases in the country — and their willingness to buy club merchandise.

China’s domestic game at club and national level trails,, despite an ingestion of foreign stars by its clubs and official aspirations to host a FIFA World Cup. It has also only recently shrugged off its own corruption-laced past.

For its part, FIFA is no stranger to cosy relationships with the governments of the countries staging its tournaments, especially under its disgraced former president, Sepp Blatter. The organisation has since sought to clean up its act although it has, for example, struggled to deal with the racism currently afflicting the European game and to a lesser extent with match-fixing scandals.

One accusation against Blatter-era FIFA is that Qatar bought its award of the 2022 World Cup (an allegation that the emirate denies strongly). Calls persist for it to be stripped of the event.

The competition that the new club tournament will replace, the Confederation Cup, was traditionally used as a tune-up for the host nation of the following year’s World Cup. Might China conceivably get its coveted World Cup ahead of plan?

The question would then be if Beijing would judge the prize worth the cost of being more tolerant of chatter not to its liking, or will the money talk, and football folk will have to keep their lips closed tighter than a cup-winning defence.

Update: FIFA has confirmed that China will host the tournament in 2021.

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China Edges Away From Deleveraging And More Towards Stimulus

 

Workers polish escalator parts in Zhejiang,China in 2016. Photo credit: ILO. Licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 IGO License.

THE DISMAL MONTHLY industrial output numbers for May, the weakest year-on-year growth in 17 years, point only too clearly to the binary choice for China’s policymakers: stimulate to keep the economy on track to grow at the 6% annual rate the official target demands, or deleverage to reduce systemic financial risk and continue to rebalance the economy in the cause of long-term sustainable growth.

They are doubling down on the first. Targeted stimulus, undertaken since last year, has come up short in the face of the global slowdown of growth and trade caused by the uncertainty generated by the United State’s foreign policy in general and trade policy in particular, with China directly in the Trump administration’s crosshairs when it comes to the latter.

Fiscal and now increasingly monetary loosening is already underway and local authorities’ are being given renewed licence to take on debt to enable real estate and infrastructure projects, just the sort of investment that ran up public sector debt in the first place, and which has been steadily reined in over the past four years.

There will be more loosening to come. Vice Premier Liu He told the Lujiazui Forum in Shanghai on Thursday that Beijing has plenty of policy tools and is capable of dealing with its various challenges. This was widely taken to be signalling imminent further cuts in either interest rates or the reserve ratio requirements for banks. Liu also put a positive spin on the international pressures on China, saying they would force the pace of rebalancing of the economy and opening of the financial sector.

This Bystander is not holding his breath. The longer deleveraging is put off in the cause of maintaining GDP growth above target, the greater the debt burden grows, and the closer the day of financial reckoning becomes.

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China’s First-Quarter Growth Lays Base For Hitting 2019’s Target

FIRST-QUARTER GROWTH came in slightly better than expected at 6.4% (consensus estimates were for 6.3%), and unchanged from the final quarter of 2018, confirming that the targeted stimulus applied since the second half of last year is taking effect.

The combination of fiscal and monetary measures helped boost industrial production in March by 5% year-on-year and retail sales by 8.7%. Fixed asset investment increased by 6.3%.

Beijing is targeting growth for the year at between 6% and 6.5%.

The challenges remain balancing growth with deleveraging and the prospect of a slowing global economy. The outcome of the trade talks with the United States is the wildcard.

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‘Tariff Man’ Trump Eyes Export Controls On US AI And AV Technology

THE TARIFFS TRUCE agreed by Presidents Xi Jinping and Donald Trump at their dinner during the G20 meeting in Buenos Aires last Saturday always looked a flimsy affair. For all it being long on self-congratulation — “a great success”, both sides declared — it was short on substance.

Moreover, the detail that has subsequently emerged, overwhelmingly through the media of Trump’s tweets and television appearances by members of his administration, does not appear to align with what the Chinese side thought it had agreed to — although it is difficult to divine what that was as it has been mostly silent on the matter.

In making his opening negotiating bids in public, however, Trump has wrong-footed (again) Beijing, which anyway prefers to hold such discussions well away from the discomfort of public view.

There does not even seem to be agreement on the start point of the 90-day tariff suspension to allow trade talks to proceed that both sides do acknowledge was agreed. Trump says the clock started ticking at the end of the dinner; China has made no public comment.

As we noted earlier, the threat of more tariffs hangs over the talks; “I am a tariff man”, says Trump. And there are, of course, potential auto tariffs coming down the pike, with the results of a Commerce Department ‘Section 232’ investigation into whether foreign car imports threaten US national security expected within a couple weeks.

However, a potentially more damaging long-term threat to China’s economy lies in a different sanction the United States is contemplating — technology export controls.

Late last month, the administration posted in the Federal Gazette a call for public comments on emerging and foundation technologies that the United States could ban its firms selling to China on national security grounds.

Some of the technology categories listed have a direct bearing on two core pillars of the ‘Made in China 2025’ industrial policy, artificial intelligence and autonomous vehicles. In the latter, Chinese manufacturers are dependent on US-bought chips and sensors, currently imported but intended increasingly to be sourced from foreign companies acquired by Chinese companies through mergers and takeovers.

This route, too, is being blocked. Hence the revived drive towards indigenous production. The public comment period is for a relatively short three weeks that run to December 19, suggesting the Trump administration is champing at the bit to implement export controls.

Update: The tone of the 90-day talks is not likely to be improved by the arrest in Canada at the United States’ request of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s chief financial officer and a daughter of the telecoms company’s founder. Washington has started extradition proceedings in connection with possible violations of sanctions against Iran and North Korea. In contrast, to its public pronouncements on the trade talks, Beijing has been quick and firm in its condemnation.

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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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