IT HAS BEEN a decade since a property tax was piloted in Shanghai and Chongqing. However, on October 23, the National People’s Congress announced that these pilots would be extended to other cities in a five-year test, although details have not been made public.
The decade-long gap is indicative of how much resistance there has been to bringing in a property tax nationally in the meanwhile.
Unaffordable home prices are a significant grievance among the urban middle class, especially for younger members struggling to get on the property ladder. Yet, it is also the primary means of accumulating wealth, particularly for the subset of the middle class who are officials. According to the rating agency Moody’s, property accounts for about 70% to 80% of household wealth in China.
The current five-year plan (2021-25) promises the introduction of a property tax within its term. However, when President Xi Jinping called for a property tax earlier this month, albeit couched in terms of curbing property speculation and limiting excessively high incomes under his ‘common prosperity’ rubric, there was scepticism about whether this latest attempt to introduce it more widely would be any more successful than previous efforts.
A property tax would be instrumental in reforming China’s fiscal model in a way that would support more balanced development and reduce local authorities dependence on land sales to raise revenue — and the associated opportunities for pocket lining by local officials. More than 20% of provincial and municipal government revenue comes from land sales to developers, totalling some $1.3 trillion last year.
A property tax would have to replace that and more. The limited schemes being tested in Shanghai and Chongqing accounted for an estimated 5% of local tax revenue at most last year. Sticking our fiscal finger in the air, we reckon that a national property tax, like property taxes in most countries, would have to extend far beyond the superwealthy to raise the revenue that would be needed.
The political obstacles to a property tax remain high, although arguably the least high of any point in the past decade. For many, officials in particular, it will not be so much the taxes to be handed over to the central government as the disclosures of properties for tax assessment.
There is also the significant risk that, if mismanaged, it would exacerbate the slowdown in the property market triggered by the Evergrande crisis.
There is some headroom for growth to slow and still meet official targets of around 6% growth. Yet, a prolonged or significant slowing of the economy beyond that could cause politically troubling social instability.
The expanded trials of property tax will likely start small and be implemented gradually. Wealthy Zhejiang province has been floated as a possible candidate. Other reports speak of up to 10 cities being selected. First-tier and core second-tier cities would be the most likely to be chosen. What the tax rate would be, what it would be applied to and when it would start has still probably to be argued out. Similarly, what, and more importantly, who gets an exemption or preferential rate.
If Xi throws his weight behind pushing through a property tax, it will be a litmus test of how powerful he is. However, as he has given himself five years for the expanded pilots, we may well know the answer to that by other means by then.