In past editions of China Looking Ahead, we examined the indirect tax landscape in China with a particular focus on the value added tax (VAT) reform initiatives. For the most part, our predictions as to the VAT rates and key policies relating to the VAT reforms have been surprisingly accurate. However, in last year's edition we had expected that the remaining sectors yet to transition from Business Tax (BT) to VAT, being real estate and construction, financial services and insurance, and lifestyle services, would be implemented during 2015. However, this has not yet occurred.
The VAT reforms
Rather than devoting another chapter to the VAT reforms, in this edition of China Looking Ahead we focus more on longer-term domestic and international trends and how they will impact on China's indirect tax system. We raise the question of whether China will be a global leader, or a follower, in terms of indirect tax trends.
Before doing so though, it would be remiss us of not to provide at least a very brief update on the progress of the VAT reforms. During the middle of 2015, it is understood that the proposed policies for the remaining sectors to transition to VAT were due to be submitted to the State Council for approval. However, this occurred at a time when the Chinese economy was in a state of considerable uncertainty. The Shanghai Stock Exchange was experiencing near-double digit gyrations over the course of a single day; there was concern that the transition from a manufacturing based economy to a service economy was slowing growth, at least in the short-term; and the previously overheated property market in Tier 1 and 2 cities was flat-lining. Not surprisingly, the State Council likely concluded it was not an ideal time to introduce a major tax reform initiative such as the VAT reforms.
Other countries which have attempted similar reforms, such as India, Malaysia and the member states (Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Oman and the United Arab Emirates) of the Gulf Cooperation Council, chose to delay their indirect tax reform agenda when confronted with similar economic headwinds. Put simply, implementing significant VAT changes during periods of economic uncertainty and instability is extremely challenging.
It is now expected that the VAT reform policies for the remaining sectors will be introduced shortly, with implementation expected to take place in the latter part of 2016. Whether that timeline will still be met remains to be seen, and much depends on the Chinese economy re-stabilising. It is understood that the government is still fully committed to implementing the VAT reforms, so their implementation is more of a matter of "when" rather than "if". After all, leaving the job half-finished creates additional policy, compliance and administrative burdens for tax authorities and taxpayers alike.
Trends in indirect taxes internationally and how China's system compares
With the VAT reforms expected to be fully implemented in China in the near future, attention will then turn to the long-term development of its indirect tax system. Here we take a look at four trends which we are seeing internationally, and how China's system compares. The central conclusion which we reach is that China's indirect tax system has the potential to be a world's leader which actually sets the trend for other countries to follow, rather than being a late adopter of policies which have been road-tested and implemented elsewhere. This would be a dramatic development given that China's VAT system (in anything resembling its current form) was only introduced in 1994 (about 40 years after the French first introduced it), and even then, it was not until 2008 that its VAT system became more of a consumption-based tax rather than production-based tax (with input credits being allowed for fixed assets).
First trend – more comprehensive VAT base
The first trend is the anticipated shift towards more comprehensive VAT bases. (In this article, any reference to VAT also includes a reference to a goods and services tax (GST) which is the name given to the same tax adopted in countries such as Australia, New Zealand, Canada, Singapore and Malaysia.)
The OECD recently released its 'Consumption Tax Trends 2014', which highlights the fact that 21 out of 34 OECD member countries increased their VAT/GST rates at least once over the period from 2009 to 2014, with the average VAT/GST rate among OECD member countries now more than 19%. The obvious opportunity now is for governments to broaden the base – because their rates may be starting to reach a natural ceiling; to plug revenue gaps most commonly associated with the digitisation of global economies; or to continue the shift from corporate taxes to indirect taxes given the relative ease of collection and stability of the latter in times of economic uncertainty.
Interestingly, the OECD recently concluded (in OECD/Korea Institute of Public Finance (2014), "The Distributional Effects of Consumption Taxes in OECD Countries", OECD Tax Policy Studies, No 22), that reduced rates and other concessions were not an efficient way to protect lower income individuals and address the so-called regressivity of indirect taxes, which is the oft-cited reason given by policy makers for providing such concessions in the first place. A recent OECD study shows that many of these reduced rates actually benefit higher income households more than lower income households. This is particularly the case for reduced VAT rates on restaurant meals, hotel rooms and cultural goods, such as books, theatre and cinema tickets. This suggests that a better way to achieve equity and social objectives would be to remove these reduced rates and provide more targeted relief measures, such as income-tested benefits and tax credits.
Another "concessionary" area which will be watched closely is financial services. Historically, financial services were exempted from indirect taxes on the basis that it was considered too difficult to measure the value added on a transaction-by-transaction basis. However, the goalposts gradually shifted when countries such as South Africa recognised the ease with which VAT could be applied to financial services remunerated on an explicit fee or commission basis. General insurance policies also became subject to VAT/GST in countries such as New Zealand, South Africa, Singapore and Australia; and even in Europe, the exemption from VAT has been substituted by insurance premium taxes.
In the area of financial services, China's VAT system will potentially emerge over the next five years as being world leading. In particular, if the VAT reforms result in all, or nearly all, financial services being taxed under a VAT (as is proposed), then it can be expected that other countries will quickly follow suit. Only Argentina and Israel are known to apply a VAT to financial services, and in the latter case the VAT system deviates significantly from the traditional credit-offset VAT system.
If the Chinese experiment is successful, expect the debate about reforming financial services to be reignited in Europe, Canada, Australia and elsewhere. With the entry of market disruptors such as high-tech companies and traditional retailers into financial services, the rise of fee-based products, and more sophisticated pricing models used by financial institutions, many of the traditional arguments used to rebut the application of VAT to financial services now appear weakened. After all, the blurring of the lines between traditional banking products engaged in by the likes of the big 4 banks – ICBC, Bank of China, China Construction Bank and Agricultural Bank of China – and the tech sector, led by companies such as Alibaba with products such as Alipay, highlight the anomalies which would arise if the products of one were taxed under a VAT and the other was not.
Second trend – shift to a single rate VAT system
A related trend is the shift from multiple rate VAT systems to single rate systems.
Time and again it has been shown that complexities arise in VAT systems which have either multiple rates, or rely on excessive exemptions and concessions. Well known international cases highlighting everyday consumer transactions emphasise the problems which arise for both taxpayers and tax authorities – for example, whether a meal served on board an international flight should be treated as a separate taxable supply from the flight, which is zero rated (See British Airways plc v Customs & Excise Commissioners (1990) 5 BVC 97) ; whether medicines given to a patient visiting a doctor should be treated as a separate supply of goods from the medical service of seeing the doctor (See Dr Beynon & Partners v Customs & Excise Commissioners  STC 55) ; and whether the supply of software is a good, or an intangible.
China, with its multiple rates of 3%, 6%, 11%, 13% and 17%, will inevitably need to consolidate into a single rate, or at least to drastically reduce the number of VAT rates in existence. Already, the use of multiple rates has posed a number of challenges, with sectors such as transportation being subject to 11% VAT, while the related logistics services are subject to VAT at a 6% rate; and in the telecommunications sector, the supply of a mobile phone may be subject to 17% VAT, whereas the use of data attracts a 6% VAT and calls attract an 11% VAT rate. The government officials have apparently recognised these complexities and are reportedly proposing to rationalise the number of VAT rates and move towards a single rate, with a reduced rate for some supplies.
One wonders whether the move to a single-rate VAT system in China could have been achieved in one hit during the implementation of the VAT reforms, though it is understood the policymakers were keen to manage the tax burden impact on business, and therefore adopted VAT rates which most closely mirrored the tax burden impact previously felt under BT. It is understood that the government would like to move towards a single VAT rate in the near future, and in so doing, one anticipates the rate would likely be towards the upper end of the current rates being used – somewhere between 13% and 17%.
Third trend – global framework for cross-border services and intangibles
The third trend, though perhaps likely to miss a 2020 target, is the shift towards a global framework for applying VAT to cross-border flows of services and intangibles. That global framework is expected to result in a high level of consistency between countries in the VAT treatment of international trade flows, based on the destination principle. This is the principle that VAT should be levied in the place where goods and services are consumed, not the place where they originate. The destination principle provides a very powerful response, in an indirect tax context, to the base erosion and profit shifting (BEPS) debate , which is ongoing in a corporate tax context.
As Professor Rebecca Millar recently noted (Millar, R. (2014). Looking ahead: potential global solutions and the framework to make them work. The Future of VAT in a Digital Global Economy 2014, Vienna, Austria: Presentation), there is a real contrast in the challenge for policy makers in taxing cross-border transactions under corporate taxes as compared with indirect taxes:
Yet the conclusion that "something needs to be done" simply does not have the same significance for VAT as it does for income tax. This is not because VAT on global digital transactions is easy to collect: it is not. Nor is it because VAT raises different collection problems than income tax: for the most part, it does not. What is different about VAT is the almost universal agreement on the substantive jurisdictional principle that should be used to determine the tax base. Some countries might pay lip service to the destination principle, particularly countries with limited tax collection capacity and a high reliance on VAT to meet their revenue needs. Other countries – or their tax administrations and/or courts – might disagree about what the destination principle requires in particular circumstances. Nonetheless, there is little or no significant disagreement on the fundamental principle. Nor is there any significant disagreement about the most important aspect of the neutrality principle, which entails the notion that there should generally be no tax burden on business-to-business (B2B) transactions under a VAT. Thus, whatever it is that needs to be done, it is unlikely to involve a fundamental re-think of the jurisdictional basis upon which decisions are made about which country has the right to tax consumption. [Footnotes omitted]
While a single set of rules to be applied globally may be an unrealisable dream, agreement on framework principles is not. As the OECD has recently recommended (OECD (2015), Addressing the Tax Challenges of the Digital Economy, Action 1 – 2015, Final Report, OECD/G20 Base Erosion and Profit Shifting Project, OECD Publishing, Paris), supplies of services and intangibles in a business-to-consumer (B2C) context should be taxed based on the place of performance where they are consumed "on the spot", such as services physically performed on a person, accommodation, restaurant and catering services, entertainment and sporting events, exhibitions and trade fairs. Business-to-consumer supplies should be taxed based on the "usual residence" of the customer for other supplies of services and intangibles, such as consultancy, accounting and legal services, financial and insurance services, long-term rental of movable property, telecommunications and broadcasting services, and online supplies of content, storage and gaming. And business-to-business (B2B) rules, where the emphasis is on achieving neutrality, should focus not only on where the business customer will use its purchases that final consumers will acquire, but also on facilitating the flow-through of the tax burden to the final consumer.
The logical consequence of this approach is the need for simplified registration and compliance regimes to enable suppliers without a physical presence in that jurisdiction to properly account for VAT. Governments will be incentivised to do so, given that they otherwise run the risk of having to rely on more difficult and costly enforcement and collection mechanisms.
Already we have seen movement towards the implementation of these principles with the adoption from January 1 2015 of the EU's Mini One Stop Shop, which not only invokes the destination principle for B2C transactions, but also seeks to simplify the compliance burden for business across EU member states. Similar measures have also recently been implemented in countries such as Norway, South Africa, Korea and Japan, with others such as Australia and New Zealand shortly to follow. It would not be surprising to see whole trading blocs, such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) economic community, banding together to administer collection systems on a more simplified basis. This is key: unless governments can come together to simplify or overcome the need for separate country registrations, tax filings, and compliance, they will in many cases be resigning themselves to an 80/20 level of tax collection: the idea that 80% of the revenue can be collected from 20% of taxpayers. The other 20% of revenue would likely go largely uncollected given limited enforcement options where the supplier does not have a taxable presence in that country.
From the perspective of China, the new VAT system already adopts the destination principle. However, for China there is both an opportunity and a challenge in applying this principle to cross-border B2C transactions. The opportunity is that if the Chinese VAT system can accommodate foreign suppliers registering and accounting for VAT on the supply of digitised services and other intangibles to end-consumers in China, then this will plug an ever-increasing revenue gap. At present, the liability to account for VAT is more theoretical than real, with compliance difficult to achieve in practice, and enforcement not known to be active. The challenge though is that the Chinese VAT system does not allow foreign businesses without a taxable presence in China to register and account for VAT. It also does not enable them to issue special or general VAT invoices, or to claim input VAT credits.
The registration system for Chinese VAT is inextricably linked to the system of business licensing, to foreign exchange controls, and many other aspects of the general regulatory environment in China. Any change to the VAT registration system in China to allow foreign entities to opt in, is difficult to achieve in isolation from broader regulatory change. Put simply, enabling foreign entities to register and account for VAT is no small change to implement in China. But it must be done.
If developments in technology such as 3-D digital printing mean, in the future, cars or houses effectively being supplied cross-border in an intangible form, then the consequences of not taxing (or at least not enforcing) cross-border B2C transactions, knows no real bounds.
Fourth trend – big data
This decade has seen a seismic awakening in the business world to the power of data and analytics. Historically the domain of the IT expert, data and analytics are now harnessed to drive business growth; to enter new markets; to drive change across operations, supply chain and finance; to understand and anticipate customer needs; and to implement new business models.
At a recent KPMG Global Indirect Tax Services event held in Hampshire, UK, participants from many of the largest multinational companies around the world debated eight key statements around the future impact of Big Data on indirect taxes. These statements, while deliberately provocative, paint a picture of the potential of Big Data post-2020. The eight propositions are:
1) No more periodic returns – tax will be settled in real-time. Already we have seen innovation in countries such as Brazil, which recently implemented a public system of digital accounting used to approve, store and certify commercial and tax bookkeeping documents, to enable tax authorities to make a complete assessment of their tax accounting information. China is well placed here too, with its Golden Tax System providing a data download of transaction-level information to the tax authorities on a monthly basis. While not yet real-time, that solution is not far away and is inevitable. Interestingly, in a recent article published by Bloomberg BNA, two academics put forward a thought-provoking proposal as to how indirect taxes could be transformed into something more akin to a retail sales tax through real time tax collection.
2) Big data will close the VAT gap. While there is an abundance of anecdotal evidence supporting increased requests for information by tax authorities from business, much of that data has not been harnessed yet. This will change. Data analytics enables tax authorities to develop sophisticated risk profiles and conduct trend analysis, flag potential audit issues, and screen out higher risk cases for deeper investigation – cutting off avenues for fraud before they even occur. In China, data is being captured by the tax authorities through the Golden Tax System – now the challenge is for them to harness and utilise it to best effect. By analogy, just as we expect immigration officials to use data to pre-screen passengers before arriving at their destination, so too will tax authorities in China. Random audits will become a contradiction in terms.
3) The tax transparency debate will shift to indirect taxes. Several recent high profile media cases have highlighted a disconnect between community expectations around the contribution that multinational companies should make to tax collection in the countries in which they operate, and their actual contributions. This has led to mandated disclosure obligations in a number of countries, as well as new initiatives such as country-by-country reporting. The role of indirect taxes in that debate has been somewhat muted to date, raising issues such as: whether indirect taxes should be reported as part of a company's total tax obligations; and does a multinational company bear some responsibility if it is legitimately able to provide goods or services into a country without VAT? Arguably the consumer is the winner, but equally it may be contended that the supplier has secured a competitive advantage over locally-based businesses. Plainly in China, where B2C supplies of intangibles cross-border often escape the VAT net (in practice), the roles and obligations of these large technology companies will come to the fore.
4) Data quality and analysis will be the new audit battleground. The new tax audit battleground will be around the testing of business systems and processes, to better understand controls around manual interventions, and to see how those systems respond to changes as a result of new products or services, or new rates and indirect tax rules. The debate in tax audits will be around whether one data set is better than another – in other words, whether tax authorities' data which shows a certain correlation or trend is more accurate or robust than that of the company being audited. Tax authorities in Singapore have been among the leaders in this area, recognising the mutual benefit for both companies and governments in the former investing in controls over indirect taxes as a means of securing enhanced compliance, with the latter co-funding the costs of implementing it. China's recent foray into tax compliance agreements to encourage companies to implement better processes and controls, is a first step in a long journey.
5) Businesses won't control all their own data anymore. Banks and credit card processors are already playing an increasing role as de facto tax collectors around the world, with their data routinely being requested for analysis and to validate transaction-level data. Interestingly, that same transaction-level data which is so critical in an indirect tax context will increasingly be leveraged by tax authorities in a corporate or personal income tax context.
6) Your data will become very interesting to others. Increased information exchanges between governments will facilitate multi-country tax authority audits. Indirect tax systems will also increasingly rely on the VAT registration status of parties, or their address details, and that information will likely become publicly available.
7) Indirect tax rules will be written with data analytics in mind. For example, place of supply rules will cease to be based on vague or uncertain concepts such as residency for tax purposes. The use of proxies which rely on information already collected by the supplier will become the norm. For example, in China, the destination principle will not simply rely on vague concepts such as whether the supplier or the recipient is in China, but rather, will focus on more precise measurements, such as IP address or credit card information entered by the customer as part of the transaction.
8) You [the tax manager] will be redundant by 2020! This was a tongue-in-cheek suggestion designed to highlight the changing roles and responsibilities of tax managers as a result of the Big Data phenomenon. In the future tax managers will be more focused on issues such as how systems respond to changes in products, services and technology; testing the integrity of systems; and analysing trends and exception reporting. Big Data demand is expected to reach 4.4 million jobs globally, with two-thirds of these positions remaining unfilled. The point is simple – businesses need to retrain, recruit or upskill their tax staff to respond to the Big Data challenge. China is well placed given its tech-savvy population, but the major area for development will be in upskilling people to analyse the increasing volume of data being produced.
What does it all mean?
The truly fascinating issue to consider is how these megatrends will interact. If we have a shift towards single rate VAT systems with a more comprehensive VAT base, the adoption of a global framework for applying VAT to cross-border flows of services and intangibles, what happens when this is overlaid with the Big Data phenomenon?
Consider the following:
- The place of taxation for cross-border flows of services and intangibles will, in the near future, be based around proxies such as the customer's IP address, their credit card information, or the address they use as part of an ordering process. What this highlights is that data collection will drive the direction of the tax rules, rather than tax rules framing businesses' data collection needs. Put another way, tax rules will respond to business needs, rather than business responding to tax rules.
- The convergence of traditional financial services with the digital economy is likely to bring about a broadening of countries' VAT base, at least in the financial services sector. China's proposal to apply VAT to all, or nearly all, financial services, will make it world leading.
- Real-time tax collection potentially represents a win-win for both governments and business – while output tax may be paid more quickly, input taxes should similarly be refunded on a real-time basis. In theory this should lead to VAT systems operating in practice more like single layer retail sales taxes.
- The more comprehensive the VAT systems used throughout the world, and the more globally consistent the framework for dealing with cross-border flows of services and intangibles under a VAT, the better able business is to implement powerful tax engines. Auditing, both by business and tax authorities, will be focused on the quality and integrity of their systems, rather than technical detail.
- Technological development will allow developing countries to make quantum leaps in their tax collection and administration systems. Just as mobile payments are enabling more sophisticated banking and financing transactions in many parts of the world, so too will technology enable the gap between tax collection in developing and developed countries to be bridged. China is well placed here with its infrastructure (being the Golden Tax System) largely already in place, and with improvements progressively being made, including a move towards electronic invoicing.
- Increased volumes of goods now cross borders in non-physical form (for example, digital downloads), and as a result, the focus of collection and enforcement infrastructure operated by tax authorities will need to respond and adapt. With technological developments we could not have contemplated only a few years ago, such as 3D printing technology, over time the scope of what we deliver electronically is expected to substantially increase.
By international standards, certain aspects of China's VAT system still have room for considerable improvement, such as the need to shift towards a single rate VAT system, and the need to expand its VAT base to better enable the collection and enforcement of VAT on B2C cross-border supplies of digitised services and intangibles. However, once China emerges from the VAT reforms with a very comprehensive VAT base, and with the natural evolution of the Golden Tax System towards real time tax collection, China may emerge with a world-leading indirect tax system from 2020 and beyond.
8th Floor, Prince's Building
Lachlan is the national leader of indirect taxes for KPMG in China, the leader of KPMG's Indirect Taxes Centre of Excellence; the Asia Pacific regional leader, Indirect Tax Services; and a member of KPMG's Global Indirect Tax Services practice leadership team.
Before joining KPMG China, Lachlan was the leader of KPMG Australia's indirect taxes practice and the leader of KPMG Australia's tax controversy practice.
Lachlan leads KPMG's efforts in relation to the VAT reform pilot programme in China. In the course of this, he has been asked to provide advice to the Ministry of Finance, the State Administration of Taxation and other government agencies in relation to several key aspects of the VAT reforms, including the application of VAT to financial services, insurance, real estate, transfers of a business, as well as other reforms relating to the introduction of advance rulings in China.
Lachlan is formerly a director of The Tax Institute, which is the most prestigious tax professional association in Australia. In this role, he was frequently invited to consult with the Australian Taxation Office and Commonwealth Treasury on tax issues, as well as consulting with government officials from both China and the US about indirect tax reform.
Before joining KPMG, Lachlan was a partner in a major law firm, and has extensive experience in a broad range of taxation and legal matters. He has appeared before the High Court of Australia, the Federal Court of Australia and the Administrative Appeals Tribunal, including in the first substantive GST case in Australia.
Lachlan is a noted speaker on VAT issues and has also presented numerous seminars for various professional associations, industry groups and clients on the VAT reforms in China.
8th Floor, KPMG Tower, Oriental Plaza
Shirley Shen started her career with professional accounting firms in Australia in 2004 and has experience working across various disciplines including tax and accounting. Before joining KPMG China in 2007, she worked in the tax department of another big-four firm for two years.
She is actively involved in the VAT reform in China by assisting the Legislative Affairs Office of Budgetary Affairs Commission of the National People's Congress and the Ministry of Finance since 2008.
Shirley is a key member of KPMG's Indirect Taxes Centre of Excellence and leads the VAT team in KPMG's Beijing office. She has been involved in many VAT reform projects for multinational companies and state-owned enterprises and provides a full range of services relating to VAT implementation. She has been instrumental in influencing policy makers on behalf of industries such as the transportation industry and finance leasing industry to achieve improved policy outcomes under the VAT reforms.
She is a noted speaker on VAT issues and has presented numerous seminars for various professional associations, industry groups and clients on the VAT reforms in China.
50th Floor, Plaza 66
John Wang was previously a tax official in the Chongqing Municipality State Tax Bureau, with more than seven years of tax audit and administration experience.
John joined KPMG China after completing his MBA courses in the UK in 2004.
In his career as a tax consultant at KPMG, John has deployed the knowledge and skills acquired from both his work at the tax authority and his MBA studies in providing advisory services to multinational clients and domestic clients in a wide variety of industries. He has been actively involved in helping companies prepare for the continuing PRC VAT reform.
Jean Jin Li
9th Floor, China Resource Building 5001 Shennan East Road
Jean has more than 10 years of experience working in China tax practice. She started her professional career in Shanghai, later relocating to Shenzhen. She also worked in the US as a tax professional for the expansion of her business network and greater international exposure. Jean is based in the KPMG Shenzhen office as one of the tax partners of KPMG Southern China.
Jean specialises in China corporate tax and indirect tax. She has rich and extensive experience in providing tax and business advisory services for the significant business activities of large state-owned enterprises, for example, investment, outbound, restructuring and M&A deals.
Jean is also actively involved in the China VAT reform and has extensive experience in serving many well-known companies in real estate and finance industries. Jean has also actively contributed her insights on the VAT reform from an industry perspective to various tax authorities and government departments, including the Ministry of Finance of the PRC.
Jean is a certified public accountant and a holder of the lawyer practitioner qualification in China. With her strong accounting, auditing, taxation and legal background, Jean is well known as a China tax expert and is frequently invited as speaker by professional associations (for example, ACCA) and many universities across China.
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