Property Tax Development in China

Chengri Ding, July 1, 2005

The Lincoln Institute’s China Program was established several years ago, in part to develop training programs on property taxation policy and local government finance with officials from the State Administration of Taxation (SAT). The Institute and SAT held a joint forum on international property taxation in Shenzhen in December 2003, and more than 100 participants attended another course held in China in May 2004. In January 2005, 24 Chinese tax officials from 15 provinces visited the United States for additional programs; many of them are developing property tax systems in six pilot cities. The Institute also supports the Development Research Center (DRC) of the State Council to research property tax assessment in China, and they jointly organized a forum in February 2005.

Economic growth and institutional reforms in China over the past two decades have created profound changes within the society. The central authorities now need to set forth new policies and procedures for modern governance to address devolution of certain authority to local governments, rapid urban and rural development, and changes in land uses and land and fiscal policies. The national government’s commitment to further modernization is most evident in the effort to develop and implement a new property taxation system.

This article describes the current system and discusses issues and challenges that must be overcome to implement a successful property tax policy in China. Given the complexity of this endeavor and the huge variation in economic development across the country, a gradualist approach, which has proved effective in China’s modernization process, may be the best way to initiate property tax reform and development.

Current Taxation System

China collects 24 types of taxes. The central and local governments share the value added tax (VAT) and business tax revenues; the former tax is the primary revenue source for the central government, whereas the latter is the most important tax for local governments. Two other important tax sources for the central government are the consumption (excise) tax and the personal income tax. Twelve taxes are related to land and property, but most do not generate significant revenues. The business tax accounted for 14.41 percent of total central and local government revenues in 2002, but only a small portion of that amount was generated from property-related sources. The reason is that business and income taxes are collected only when land or property is rented or sold, and thus do not provide a steady stream of revenue. It is hard to imagine that any of the 12 property-related taxes could play a key role in resource allocation and local government finance over the long term.

An evaluation of the current tax system reveals additional concerns.

  • The tax structure is out of date. The urban real estate tax was developed in 1951 and several other taxes, including the farmland occupation tax, the urban land use tax and the housing tax, were institutionalized in the late 1980s. Given the tremendous advances in economic and institutional reform since then, China’s tax system needs to be updated to function effectively within this new context.
  • Domestic and foreign entities operate under differing tax bases and rates. The Chinese government offers tax incentives to foreign entities to attract foreign direct investment that domestic investors do not receive. In addition, domestic land users pay the urban land use tax and housing tax, whereas foreign land users pay the urban real estate tax. Furthermore, structures used for commercial or industrial purposes in rural areas do not pay any land- or property-related taxes. As a result of these differing tax policies, the overall tax rate for foreign enterprises is generally 10 percent lower than that for domestic enterprises.
  • Several of the taxes are redundant. For example, the business tax and housing tax are both based on housing rental income; the land value incremental tax, enterprise (corporate) income tax and personal income tax are all based on the net rental or transaction income from property.
  • Land and property taxes are levied on transactions rather than asset holdings. This arrangement produces a market-dependent revenue stream and is vulnerable to fluctuations over time.
  • The tax base is narrowly defined. Properties used for commercial purposes are subject to certain taxes, but residential properties are exempt.
  • The tax system is not well equipped to address the complexities of emerging market development. For instance, current land and property taxes impede the development of real estate markets for mortgaging, re-renting and subleasing transactions.

The shortcomings in the current taxation system have resulted in major fiscal problems for the central government, such as declining revenue mobilization and ineffective use of tax policy to leverage macroeconomic policy (Bahl 1997). When the government conducted tax reform in 1993 to overcome some of the problems, one of the largest initiatives shifted responsibility for urban and public services to local governments.

This measure was successful in improving the central government’s fiscal condition; however, the revenue share for local governments was not increased at a level commensurate with their increased responsibility. Consequently, many local governments face increasing budgetary deficits. Figure 1 illustrates the financial deficit for local governments after the 1993 tax reform. More than one-third of county-level governments have serious budget problems and over half of the local governments directly below the provincial level have budgets that merely cover the basic operations of public entities.

Public Land Leasing

One of the means by which local governments increase revenues in the absence of an effective taxation system is through public land leasing. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the state introduced market principles into the decision-making process regarding land use and allocation by separating land use rights from ownership. This separation promotes the development of land markets, which in turn have created tremendous impacts on real estate and housing development, urban land use and land allocation. Except for a short yet dramatic drop in the early 1990s due to a macroeconomic policy designed to prevent the national economy from overheating, the prices for access to land use rights and public land leasing rates have been increasing steadily.

Despite the significant number of land leasing transactions, the government closely regulates and controls the amount of land being leased by maintaining a monopoly on land supply (Ding 2003). Most land in rural areas still belongs to the collectives, and urban construction is prohibited on rural land unless it is first acquired by the state. Land developments that occur on collectively owned rural land are considered illegal, and administrative efforts such as monitoring and inspecting have been implemented to eliminate these violations.

General land use plans and regulations to preserve cultivated land further control the amount of land available for urban development. The land use plans determine the total amount of land that can be added to existing urbanized areas through an annual land supply quota. At the same time, China’s preservation policy for cultivated land influences both land supply and the location of land available for urban development. The Land Administration Law specifies that at least 80 percent of cultivated land should be designated as basic farmland and prohibited from land development. Land productivity is the dominant factor used to delineate the boundaries of basic farmland. Since most cities are located in areas with rich soil resources, farmland protection designations commonly exist in urbanizing areas. Thus farmland protection inevitably results in urban sprawl and leapfrog development patterns requiring costly infrastructure investments and land consumption.

Financing Local Government. As a result of the government’s regulations and monopoly on selling land use rights, local authorities use the public land leasing system to increase their revenues through land use conveyance fees. For instance, Hangzhou City, the capital of Zhejiang Province with a population of almost four million, is among the top five in per capita national income and GDP. The city generated land conveyance fees of more than six billion YMB in 2002, more than 20 percent of the total municipal government revenues.

Interestingly, these fees were generated largely from selling to commercial users the right to access the state-owned land, yet commercial land development represented only 15 percent of total land uses in newly developed areas. The rest of the land was allocated to users through negotiation in which the sale price either barely covered the costs of acquiring and improving the land, or land was offered free to generate competition for businesses and investments.

Local governments can raise enormous revenues from limited-market transactions of land use rights, in part because land conveyance fees represent lump-sum, up-front land rent payments for a leasing period and in part because local governments exercise their strong administrative powers to require farmers to sell their land at below-market rates. When the government later resells the land at market rates, the price could be more than 100 times the purchase price. After considering the costs of land improvement, however, net revenues may be only ten times the total cost of the land.

Rising land prices resulting from the government monopoly allow local governments to use the land as collateral to borrow money from banks. These loans plus the revenue generated from conveyance fees accounted for 40 to 50 percent of the Hangzhou municipal government budget in 2002. In turn these revenues were used to fund more than two-thirds of the city’s investments in infrastructure and urban services.

Hangzhou City specializes in textiles, tourism, construction and transportation, and generates substantial revenue from business and value-added taxes, although the city’s share of income generated through the public land leasing system is also large. Many smaller cities and towns with fewer commercial and business resources use land leasing directly through land conveyance fees or indirectly as collateral to support up to 80 or 85 percent of their total investments in urban initiatives. These smaller cities must turn to land to generate revenues to fuel economic growth, launch urban renewal projects, and provide infrastructure and urban services that were neglected for a long time prior to the reform era. Land-generated revenue is also used to improve the overall financial environment, attract businesses and investments, and support the reform and reallocation of state-owned enterprises.

Negative Consequences. Despite the importance of public land leasing for income generation, the practice of using this tool to finance local governments may have serious consequences in the long run. The fiscal incentives that compel local governments to control and monopolize the land markets will negatively impact real estate and housing development, industrialization and land use. Furthermore, land is a fixed resource and ultimately there will be no more land left to lease for revenue.

Increasing pressure to protect the rights of farmers also makes it more difficult and costly to acquire land from farmers. As a result, local governments must increase land prices or face reduced revenues from land leasing. Finally, not only does land scarcity and farmer compensation pose a challenge to income generation, but recent policy reform now permits land owned by a collective to enter the land market directly. This change will prevent local governments from acquiring collective lands and exacting conveyance fees for these transfers.

Taxation Reform: Principles and Challenges

The fiscal deficits experienced by local governments and the problems with the resulting public land leasing system provided the impetus for the central government to restructure the entire taxation system. That reform is based on four guiding principles: (1) simplify the tax system; (2) broaden the tax base; (3) lower tax rates; and (4) strictly administer tax collection and management. The central authorities in charge of tax policy and administration offer several specific goals with respect to property-related taxes.

  • Unify the tax system so that domestic, foreign, urban and rural entities are treated similarly.
  • Terminate taxes at odds with efforts to foster the emergence of healthy land and real estate markets, such as the farmland occupation tax.
  • Merge the housing tax, urban real estate tax, and urban land use tax into a single property tax, and treat domestic and foreign entities equally in levying this tax.
  • Adopt a value-based property tax.

Considerable debate exists over the merits of the proposed property-related tax reform. Despite the lack of consensus as to the best option, the costs and benefits must be assessed to effectively guide the development and implementation of a new property tax system. In addition, several outstanding issues need to be resolved in order to implement the proposed land and property tax reform.

  • What are the existing laws and statutes relevant to property rights and taxation, how will they be amended and how will new laws be developed to legislate the new system?
  • What role will property taxation play in intergovernmental fiscal relations and local government financing?
  • What will the objectives of property taxation be as a fiscal and land use tool?
  • How should land and property taxation be tied to the concept of achieving value capture and financing urban infrastructure and services?
  • How will the land and property tax system relate to and be consistent with land policy reforms such as public land leasing, land acquisition, and the development of land markets in urban and rural areas such as agricultural farming?

The implementation of a value-based tax also will require the assembly and cataloguing of massive quantities of data, which historically have not been collected systematically. Furthermore, the data that have been collected are stored in different locations and in paper format. The Ministry of Land and Resources records and handles land-related data and information, whereas the Ministry of Construction is in charge of structure-related information. Matching related records from different ministries and digitizing this data will take years if not decades and will require a huge investment of resources.

The Chinese public has limited understanding of property taxation systems, so education will be required to avoid potentially significant political resistance. Capacity building within the Chinese government also will require professional training in appraisal, evaluation, appeals and collection to achieve effectiveness and efficiency in the new tax system.


Despite these unanswered issues and challenges, the Chinese government appears committed to implementing property taxation reform. The application of the widely used and successful gradualist approach for implementing policy and institutional reforms will ensure that the development and institutionalization of the property tax system proceeds on course. For example, data for industrial and commercial structures is more complete and of higher quality than data for residential structures. Furthermore, newer structures tend to have better records than older structures, and records are more complete for structures in urban areas than in rural areas. Thus, applying the property taxation system first to commercial and industrial structures, newly developed land with residential structures, and urban areas will allow the system to take hold before attempts are made to implement change in the areas with greater obstacles to overcome.


Bahl, Roy. 1997. Fiscal policy in China: Taxation and intergovernmental fiscal relations. Burlingame, CA: The 1990 Institute.

Development Research Center. 2005: Issues and challenges of China’s urban real estate administration and taxation. Report submitted to the Lincoln Institute of Land Policy.

Ding, Chengri. 2003. Land policy reform in China: Assessment and prospects. Land Use Policy 20(2): 109-120.

Liu, Z. 2004. Zhongguo Suizi Gailan. Beijing: Jinji Chuban She. (China’s taxation system. Beijing: Economic Science Publisher).

Lu, S. 2003. YanJiu ZhengDi WenTi TaoShuo GaiKe ZhiLu (II). Beijing: Zhongguo Dadi Chuban She. (Examination of land acquisition issues: Search for reforms (II). Beijing: China Land Publisher.)

Chengri Ding is associate professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at the University of Maryland, in College Park. He specializes in urban economics, housing and land studies, GIS and spatial analysis. He is also special assistant to the president of the Lincoln Institute for the Program on the People’s Republic of China.