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White-collar Chinese in Hong Kong face shock tax bills from mainland

Bank executives told to pay tens of thousands of dollars on top of local levies

Workers take their lunch breaks in Hong Kong's Central financial district.   © Reuters

HONG KONG -- Mainland professionals living and working in Hong Kong and Macao have been asked to pay additional Chinese income tax starting this year, a move some say risks triggering an exodus of talent in the two special administrative regions.

Several employees at state-owned banks told the Nikkei Asian Review they had been urged by management to file tax returns to mainland authorities by June.

Some senior executives were later told to pay hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong dollars to make up for the shortfalls caused by the difference in tax rates (100,000 Hong Kong dollars equals $13,000), according to these people.

The policy change -- which is similar to practices in the U.S. and other advanced economies, yet took many here off guard -- is part of China's personal income tax reforms.

Previously, mainland workers only had to declare their incomes to special administrative region authorities, where they would be subject to local tax rates that are among the lowest in the world. But since last year, Chinese authorities have put into practice regulations that extend the tax net to overseas mainland nationals.

Mainland workers of state-owned companies in Hong Kong and Macao are among the first to have been told to pay more.

"The additional tax has a big impact on my income," said an analyst at one of the largest state-owned banks in Hong Kong.

He paid the additional tax last month after receiving a notice from his company, which brought his total tax payment last year to about 40% of his salary. "I paid more tax to the mainland than to Hong Kong," he said, though he has been working and living here since 2016.

Hong Kong and Macao cap standard income tax rates at 15% and 12%, respectively. By contrast, rich people on the mainland can pay up to 45%. Under the current rule, Chinese authorities collect tax calculated using mainland rates after deducting tax paid to local governments.

"I think a lot of people will move back to China," the analyst said. "It doesn't make sense to live in such an expensive place when you have to pay high mainland tax at the same time."

To cushion the financial impact to mainland employees, the man said his bank is now offering no-interest loans to people affected by the new policy as well as considering reimbursing the additional payments.

Mainland nationals who work at state-owned Industrial and Commercial Bank of China in Macao also received similar notices to file tax returns to mainland authorities, according to a person who has direct knowledge of the matter.

"At first, many opposed the request," this person said. "To encourage the employees to accept arrangements, the company bosses promised that the additional tax will be reimbursed."

Tax experts are not surprised at the practice, as it has been adopted by many developed economies including the U.S.

"Previously, the collection of taxes derived from overseas incomes of Chinese nationals was not easy because of the difficulties in tracing the overseas information," said Rebecca Wong, a China tax partner at PwC. But the application of a 2017 international agreement among 100 some governments -- including both Hong Kong and China --  that established a common reporting standard for sharing information on the financial accounts of foreign individuals and companies has given mainland authorities more to work with.

While it appears that only mainland employees of state-owned companies in Hong Kong and Macao have been asked to pay the tax at the stage, Wong said mainlanders are liable for such income taxes regardless of who they work for. Those who do not comply could be fined and charged penalties for underpayment or late payment.

However, few mainland employees working for private companies overseas whom Nikkei has spoken to knew about the June deadline to declare their income to Chinese tax authorities.

While under the new mainland tax regime, individuals are responsible for declaring their own income, though the mainland government organizations appear to play a major role in facilitating the process.

A senior executive at a state-owned tech company in Hong Kong told the Nikkei Asian Review that he received a notification two weeks ago from a mainland government agency, telling him and his team to pay tax. For him, that's a bill of 240,000 yuan ($34,000).

He paid as told. But the request has made him uncomfortable given the way the Chinese government has splashed money overseas, he said.

"To spend on the aid for Africa? To buy expensive petroleum in Russia, or to provide loans to India? Is the government really ours?" he asked.

Additional reporting by Coco Liu.

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