Tax, the new revolution in China Karl Heinrich Marx spent most of his lifetime studying how to distribute social wealth fairly, and later Vladimir Ilyich Lenin concluded that revolution should be the way. In China, Mao Zedong picked up some ideas from Marx and Lenin and a “new China” was eventually created. We all know what has happened since then. Today in Shanghai and Chongqing, two of the richest cities in China, the local governments discussed how to distribute and balance social wealth, ideally for every citizen in the country. They decided to use financial tools rather than revolution, hence the new property tax, which Chongqing Mayor Huang Qifan, considered a Liberal who helped Shanghai open up its Pudong New Area, said could help the city increase revenue from property to 200 million yuan this year. The reaction? An online poll on China’s top portal Sina.com showed this morning that nearly 60 percent of respondents voted against the property tax plan and more than 40 percent said they did not expect the new tax to lower property prices. Experts and scholars are now interested to see how Shanghai and Chongqing are going to collect the tax –0.6 percent for Shanghai and 0.5-1.2 percent for Chongqing, both announced on Thursday evening and effective from today — in a peaceful and practical way. Others cast doubt over the policymaking process — shall we have a consultation with taxpayers or at least go through local lawmakers, who are considered “representatives of the people”, for ideas before making a decision? The mayors of Shanghai and Chongqing both said the new tax they plan to collect, mainly from the fast-growing middle-class, will mainly be spent on building more cheap, affordable public housing for low-income people, hence redistributing social wealth. A very socialist idea. In my humble view, three factors are worth bearing in mind: First, all things considered, I don’t think the new property tax will bring prices down. Second, the property tax is a strong political signal from the government aimed at winning the hearts and minds of the poor, but it could certainly hurt the feelings of the middle-class. Third but not least, watch out, Hong Kong, Australia, Canada and so on, you may see more Chinese immigrants buying property, little by little, if not in a rush from tomorrow. So, should we pay a bit more attention to Hong Kong developers? Maybe they’ll see better earnings this year if there are more property buyers from the mainland. Oops! What is Donald Tsang going to do to keep the city’s property prices from climbing? That’s another story, but at least most people in Hong Kong don’t believe that socialism can really work.
Mao Zedong led his Communist comrades to defeat the Chinese Nationalists in a civil war, founding a “new” China in 1949. Today, the Hu Jintao administration is fighting a new civil war and the enemy is inflation. Beijing announced the latest interest rate rise — the second of 2010 – on Christmas Day, effective on Dec. 26, also the birthday of Chairman Mao. I suspect, central bankers in Beijing didn’t really want to celebrate the holiday, they just wanted to give the market a surprise Christmas gift. I asked some friends in the financial industry if the rate increase was a surprise. The responses were very mixed. The 0.25 basis point increase for the benchmark deposit and lending rates was a sort of uniform move. If the central bank had gone for a 50 basis point rise, that would have been a very big surprise. The timing of the increase was a surprise, especially after Beijing raised bank required reserve ratios about a week earlier. We thought Chinese officials also needed a break after a very busy month but they have proved themselves to be unpredictable one again, not to mention tireless. Just one day after Beijing raised the interest rate, Hu Xiaolian, deputy governor of the People’s Bank of China, published an article on the PBOC’s website, saying the central bank would make good use of a combination of monetary policy tools next year, including interest rates, bank reserve ratios and open market operations, to make interest rates more market-oriented. How often will these tools be implemented? She didn’t say in the article, but now many analysts are predicting the next rate increase could take place in two or three months – within the first quarter. Clearly, China has entered a new cycle of rate increases. Many economists believe the newest rate rise shows Beijing’s determination to curb inflation, giving that task greater priority than maintaining economic growth. Some analysts also said the cabinet and some ministries were finally on the same page for tackling inflation after earlier disputes over how to balance the interplay between GDP and CPI. To be honest with you, I am not a big fan of interest rates. If you really rely on interest rates to improve living standards, it’s almost like living in a daydream. Hong Kong broadcaster TVB interviewed some residents of nearby Guangzhou city after the announcement of rate rise. Most of them the move and even the prospect of more increases in 2011 would not do much to help them feel better about inflation, which is rising much faster than the pace of rate rises. Can Beijing raise interest rates once a month? I don’t think so. Will inflation continue to rise above 5 percent in coming months? That’s my guess. The core cause of China’s high inflation is food but people are also very interested to see how much property prices can fall. Premier Wen Jiabao does realise that curbing property prices is much harder than controlling food prices. In a rare state radio interview yesterday, Wen acknowledged that the measures Beijing took this year to cool the property market were “not very well implemented” and changed his tone on getting housing prices to return to “a reasonable level”. Previously, he was usually more straightforward in his statements about wanting to see prices under control during his final term, which ends in 2012. Besides inflation, it will also be interesting to see how Beijing deals with yuan appreciation. With higher deposit rates for yuan, a hopefully more bullish stock market in 2011 and prices of houses and villas rising across the vast nation regardless of policy curbs in 2010, do the factors sound perfect for seeing the yuan increase in value too? In fact, as many economists have already pointed out, a stronger yuan can also allow China to import commodities and other items more cheaply, helping the government get to grips with inflation. My grandmother, more than 80 years of age, once told me there were still many old people in China who miss the days when Chairman Mao was the leader and the distribution and balance of wealth were considered by some to be better shape than they are nowadays. Deng Xiaoping wanted to “let some people get rich first”, and today we see more and more people complain of feeling increasingly poor. It was not easy for Chairman Mao to win the civil war for control of mainland China, and the new civil war on the economic front is going to be a real test of the intelligence and strength of the younger generation of Chinese Communists.