China’s plan to cut taxes in 2019 for the masses has the nation’s super-rich running for cover on concern the government will make up the shortfall by going after the wealthy.
Changes to the tax regime as of Jan. 1 mean authorities will be paying closer attention to assets and investment holdings. In a nation where personal wealth is estimated to have climbed to a record $24 trillion in 2018 -- $1 trillion of which is held abroad -- that potentially offers rich pickings. Anxiety over how the new rules will be enforced has already triggered a flood of Chinese clients seeking to create overseas trusts.
Tougher taxes at home could have implications beyond China’s shores, with the country’s wealthy having been on a buying binge in recent years, driving up prices for everything from property in Vancouver and Sydney, to famous artworks and fine wines.
Chinese overseas wealth more than doubled between 2012 and 2018
The State Administration of Taxation didn’t respond to a faxed request for comment.
Here’s how the new tax rules may affect -- and rein in -- China’s rich:
Crackdown on Havens
Under the new rules, owners of offshore companies will not only pay taxes on dividends they receive but will also face levies of as much as 20 percent on corporate profits, from as low as zero previously. This has triggered a flood of rich families seeking refuge via trusts, which often shield wealthy owners from having to pay taxes unless the trusts hand out dividends. Overseas buildings or shell companies are also becoming easier to track for authorities as China embraces an international data-sharing agreement known as the Common Reporting Standard, or CRS.
It’s not clear how the government will utilize CRS data, especially in early 2019, but authorities may grant amnesty for a certain period for a stable transition or focus on penalizing the biggest offenders, according to Jason Mi, a partner at Ernst & Young in Beijing.
In the past, the rich could avoid paying taxes on overseas earnings by acquiring a foreign passport or green card, while keeping their Chinese citizenship. But this won’t work starting in January as the government will tax global income from all holders of "hukou" household registrations -- the most encompassing way of identifying a Chinese national -- regardless of whether they have any additional nationalities.
That’s prompted many people to give up their Chinese citizenship in 2018 by surrendering their "hukou" to avoid paying taxes on foreign income from Jan. 1, according to Peter Ni, a Shanghai-based partner and tax specialist at Zhong Lun Law Firm. Starting in 2019, people surrendering Chinese citizenship will need to be audited by tax authorities first and possibly explain all their sources of income, according to Ni.
Reining in Gifts
Tycoons transferring assets to relatives or third parties could be subject to taxation in the new year, depending on how strictly China enforces rules on gifts, according to Ni at Zhong Lun. The levies could reach as much as 20 percent of the asset’s appreciated value, according to Ni.
For example, if a tycoon were to transfer overseas shares worth $1 million to his son for free, and if those shares originally cost the tycoon $100,000, the tycoon could be taxed 20 percent of the $900,000 increase in the value of those shares, or $180,000.
The risk of getting taxed will be higher if the recipient is a foreigner because their assets may be beyond Chinese officials’ reach, according to Ni.
Tax authorities will sharpen their scrutiny of high-net-worth individuals thanks to more modern tools at their disposal, according to Ni. One is the Golden Tax System Phase III platform that’s being increasingly used to chase down people’s entire source of income. The system allows authorities to view various tax-related data, which had been scattered across various government departments, in one consolidated platform. The new system also beefs up the identification process by preventing individuals from divvying up their income across multiple sources or ID numbers to pay lower taxes.
But it’s not just the rich that may face a stricter tax environment. China lowered the threshold for blocking citizens with overdue taxes from leaving the country to 100,000 yuan ($14,600) from the previous threshold of 1 million yuan, according to the official Xinhua news agency.
Eyes on Property
Further down the road, China is preparing to introduce a property tax law that could go into effect as soon as 2020. Though the tax rate and the details remain unclear, the prospects of the tax has caused people with multiple apartments to worry and made properties a less desirable investment tool, EY’s Mi said.