China, the world's second largest economy, continues on its path to internationalising its markets with foreign companies. While capital flows in and out of China are controlled, China has launched a number of Free Trade Zones, including in Shanghai, which offer less-controlled foreign currency exchanges and tax breaks to certain industries.
Despite capital controls, China has the eighth largest foreign exchange market in the world, and its bond market is the second largest in the world, with a diverse range of public and private debt.
China is more popular as a location for Shared Service Centres rather than Regional Treasury Centres. Currency controls in and out of China make it advantageous for companies with significant operations in China to also have a treasury operations base in the country. The setting up of the Cross-border Interbank Payment System (CIPS), which connects with the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication (SWIFT), has made cross-border payments in renminbi faster and easier for businesses.
In other innovation developments, the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) announced plans in early 2021 to develop its own ‘central bank cloud’. The country’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT) also announced it would build more than 600,000 5G base stations, further expanding its 5G capabilities to counties and towns. The country’s 5G terminal connections currently number over 200 million.
Corporate Treasury in China
In this section, we highlight some of the key factors relevant to treasury and cash management in China.
Financial Market Development
- China has the largest banking sector in the world. Its four large state-owned banks are also the four largest banks in the world, as measured by total assets.
- Foreign exchange controls are in place in China, and money can only be moved in and out in accordance with strict rules and approval from or registration with the State Administration of Foreign Exchange.
- China has launched a number of Free Trade Zones, including the Lingang area in Shanghai, which permit less-controlled foreign currency exchanges and offer tax breaks to certain industries.
- Shanghai is ranked third in the 2021 Global Financial Centres Index by Z/Yen.
- China is continuing to internationalise the renminbi, which was added to the IMF's Special Drawing Rights basket in October 2016.
The Greater Bay Area Development
The government’s Greater Bay Area development blueprint aims to increase the flow of people, capital and goods between Hong Kong, Macau and nine cities in Guangdong province. The Outline Development Plan for the Greater Bay Area (GBA) sets out plans to strengthen Hong Kong’s role as a global offshore RMB hub through expanding the scope for cross-boundary use of RMB in the GBA.
Banking institutions in the GBA can offer cross-boundary RMB interbank lending, RMB foreign exchange spot and forward businesses, and related RMB derivative products, while businesses can issue cross-boundary RMB bonds.
Further details can be found here.
The latest developments can be found here.
Sophistication of Banking Systems
- In addition to China’s four large state-owned commercial banks, there are more than 1,000 commercial, rural and city commercial banks. Foreign banks have a growing presence in the country, but they account for only a small percentage of the sector's assets.
- Concerns have been raised about the level of non-performing loans in the sector, but regulators are continuing with financial sector reforms to address this, in part, over the longer term.
- Despite capital controls, China has the eighth largest foreign exchange market in the world, according to the Bank for International Settlements triennial global survey.
- China’s bond market is the second largest in the world, as measured by total debt securities. Foreigners can invest in its diverse range of public and private debt through the Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor Program, the RMB Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor Program and Bond Connect, although, as investors, they currently hold only around 3% of the debt.
- The setting up CIPS, which uses the international standard ISO 20022 and connects with SWIFT, has made cross-border payments in renminbi faster and easier, with 43 direct participants and more than 1,100 indirect participants in around 100 countries and regions taking part in the scheme.
- The main regulatory body is the China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission, which was created through the merger of the China Banking Regulatory Commission and China Insurance Regulatory Commission in 2018. The central bank, PBOC, is responsible for monetary policy and maintaining financial market stability, as well as drafting regulations for the sector.
- The State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) regulates foreign-exchange activity and manages the state foreign-exchange reserves.
- Regulations differ in the Free Trade Zones and within the Greater Bay Area.
- The corporate income tax (CIT) rate is 25%.
- Resident enterprises are taxed on their worldwide income whilst non-resident enterprises are taxed on all China-sourced income.
- A lower corporate income tax rate of 5%, 10% or 15% is available under certain circumstance, including enterprises with new/high-technology status and companies situated in certain special zones or areas.
- A number of CIT reductions and exemptions are also available for companies in certain industries or those engaged in certain projects.
- Value Added Tax (VAT) is charged at 6%, 9% or 13% depending on the type of goods or services. Some goods and services are zero-rated.
- Withholding tax is charged at 10% on interest and dividends for non-residents. Companies can defer withholding tax on dividends distributed to foreign investors by reinvesting into 'encouraged investment projects' in China and meeting certain other conditions. Rates range from 0% to 15% for countries where a tax treaty is in place and a non-resident can provide a Certificate of Residence.
- Interest income and capital gains are treated as ordinary income. Interest expenses that are used for business purposes are generally tax-deductible although excessive interest expenses from related party financing will not be tax deductible. The debt-to-equity ratio for enterprises in the financial industry is 5:1 and for other industries it is 2:1.
- Unrealised exchange gains are generally taxable, while loses are tax deductible.
- Stamp tax of between 0.005% and 0.1% is charged on a number of different types of contracts and documents.
- Foreign tax credits can be claimed by tax-resident enterprises for foreign income tax paid overseas on income derived outside of China, subject to fulfilment of certain criteria prescribed.
- China has tax treaties with more than 100 countries and territories.
- China is a signatory to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development's Multilateral Competent Authority Agreement, through which information is exchanged between tax administrations, to provide a single, global picture on some key indicators of economic activity within multinational enterprises.
Benefits for Regional Treasury Operations in China
China is more popular as a location for shared service centres (SSCs), rather than regional treasury centres (RTCs). Companies with a strong China focus are more likely to base their treasury centres in Hong Kong or Singapore.
- Currency controls in and out of China have made it advantageous for companies with significant operations in China to have a treasury operations base in the country.
- The People's Bank of China and State Administration of Foreign Exchange have introduced a number of pilot schemes that relax foreign exchange rules for foreign-owned companies, including allowing cross-border RMB lending and cross-border sweeping of RMB and foreign currencies.
- China has stated that it wants Shanghai to be an international financial centre, and market infrastructure and access to treasury professionals in the city is improving. The Lingang area in the Shanghai Free Trade Zone offers simplified cross-border financial management for the receipt and payment of funds.
- Domestic payments require Chinese characters in some fields, so treasurers must ensure their enterprise resource planning (ERP) systems can support this.
Regulatory Considerations for Payments
- Entrustment loans are the only form of lending between subsidiaries in the same group that are allowed in China.
- Notional pooling is not offered in China.
- Cash concentration on a domestic and cross-border basis in both RMB or foreign currencies is allowed, subject to regulatory filing or approval depending on the circumstances.
- Netting of cross-border payments is closely monitored. Companies must provide balance of payments (BOP) reporting for each original transaction within the timeframe stipulated by China regulators, which differs between RMB and foreign currency
- A number of schemes exist for cross-border sweeping, including RMB outbound lending and a scheme enabling companies to link their onshore and offshore cash pools, subject to controls on the inflow and outflow of funds.
- Residents may hold foreign exchange and RMB accounts domestically. However, residents are required to gain State Administration for Foreign Exchange (SAFE) approval to open foreign exchange accounts overseas, excluding export enterprises using foreign exchange accounts for export transactions whereby only registration with SAFE is required.
- Non-residents may hold foreign exchange and RMB currency accounts domestically and RMB accounts overseas. To open a bank account, strict local regulations require it to be carried out in person with extensive supporting documentation, the company's financial chop and the chop of the legal representative; SAFE approval is required to open foreign exchange accounts overseas. A special account is required in order to receive foreign currency from overseas for the purpose of clearing cross-border loans
|Onshore CNY||Onshore Foreign Currency||Offshore CNY||Offshore Foreign Currency|
(no permanent establishment)
- Only Shanghai registered companies can apply for foreign entity RMB accounts for their overseas investments subject to Ministry of Commerce and PBOC approval.
- Chinese resident companies may open a foreign currency account offshore for specific trading or project investment purposes subject to SAFE approval.
- Foreign entities can open NRA CNY accounts with Chinese banks or open NRA CNH accounts with overseas banks, with no PBOC approval required.
- Foreign entities can open RMB denominated accounts outside China, such as CNH accounts in Hong Kong. RMB can also be held in other locations such as Singapore or London.
There are several types of domestic currency (RMB) accounts. The two main ones where transactions can be readily used are:
- Basic account: Used specifically for payroll and cash withdrawals; one account per legal entity.
- General account: Used for payments and receipts (cannot be used for payroll or cash withdrawals); unlimited number of accounts per legal.
|Basic||The primary account maintained by a company used for funds transfer, settlement, payroll, and cash deposits/withdrawals. The opening of a basic account is subject to PBOC approval where the company is registered.||A company is allowed to maintain only one basic account and it should be opened with a bank located in the same city where the entity is registered. This is an important account and care should be taken in selecting a quality bank near the company's offices.|
|General||The company can maintain any number of general accounts with multiple banks to meet additional business needs or for special purposes set out in the rules and regulations in China. May not be used for cash withdrawals or payroll. Tax accounts are a type of a general account used to pay local and provincial taxes.||Can be used for the same type of payments and receipts as basic accounts, but not for payroll or cash withdrawals. There is no restriction in the location and number of general accounts. Tax accounts can only be opened with those banks that have an established link with the local tax bureau, and may not require the opening of an additional account.|
There are foreign currency accounts available in most of the major currencies including AUD, CHF, EUR, GBP, HKD, JPY, NZD, SGD, and USD, and they fall into three broad categories of use:
This account is established by the company to receive and disburse the foreign currency that is injected into China as capital for the enterprise.
Chinese entities are permitted to have this account in the RMB
Registration with SAFE is required and expenditure from this account is subject to SAFE approval. Additional accounts may be opened thereafter without SAFE pre-approval. Holding multiple accounts is possible.
This is an important account and care should be taken in selecting a quality bank. Proximity to the company's offices is not required.
Companies can choose to establish an RMB capital account instead of a USD capital account if they want to manage their FX exposure directly.
|Settlement||This account is used for day-to-day operational needs that are transacted in foreign currencies, such as import and export transactions. It can also be used to pay and receive funds for services rendered under a service contract agreement.||There is no restriction in terms of the number of settlement accounts, aggregate balances, and the location where the settlement account is maintained. Supporting the documentation is required for third-party payments.|
|Loan||This account is used for any foreign currency borrowing from both banks and overseas shareholders.||Pre-registration with SAFE is required for each foreign debt contract. After registration, accounts may be opened without pre-approval.|
Legal and Regulatory
- The People's Bank of China (PBOC) is China's central bank, and it is controlled by the State Council.
- The China Banking and Insurance Regulatory Commission is responsible for managing and limiting financial risk and supervising the development of the insurance and financial sectors. The Financial Stability and Development Committee, under the State Council, coordinates overall strategy for the financial sector and formulates policy at a local government and high level.
- The Renminbi Qualified Foreign Institutional Investor (RQFII) scheme allows overseas investors to access offshore renminbi deposits to invest in China's securities markets through selected Chinese financial institutions based in Hong Kong. As part of the initiative to further liberalise China’s capital markets, RQFII has been made less restrictive and Hong Kong’s quota for the scheme is currently RMB500 billion.
- Free Trade Zones (FTZ) are specially designated areas that are free from customs intervention and where goods can be manufactured, re-exported and traded. The first FTZs were Shanghai, Tianjin, Shenzhen and Fujian, however, more have been added, to bring the total to 11.
- The PBOC’s Financial Technology (Fintech) Development Plan is a three-year program, concluding in 2021, that aims to strengthen standards, risk controls, and security for financial technology innovation in China.
(China National Advanced Payment System)
Divided into 2 types:
CNAPS–HVPS (High Value Payment System)
|For high value (more than RMB 50,000) and urgent interbank transfers|| |
CNAPS–BEPS (Bulk Entry Payment System)
|For low value (less than RMB 50,000) electronic credits or debits|| |
(City Clearing Processing Center)
|In-city clearing system|| |
(China Domestic Foreign Currency Payment System)
|Processes foreign domestic currency payments|| |
(Cheque Imaging System)
|National electronic cheque clearing house|| |
(China International Payment System)
|Cross-border RMB payment system|| |
(Internet Banking Payment System)
|Interbank credit and debit transfer system|| |
(Treasury Information Processing System)
|Electronic tax payment system|| |
- Transactions are settled via CNAPS–HVPS or CNAPS–BEPS, depending on the value and urgency of the payment.
- Domestic payments require Chinese characters to be used in specific fields, therefore, the corporate ERP systems must be able to support this qualification.
Direct Debits (auto debits)
- Transactions are settled via CNAPS–BEPS, whereby dated debits are cleared the next day and pre-authorised debits are cleared the same day.
- A common form of payment. The number of bank cards in circulation has more than tripled over the last ten years, with debit cards accounting for over 8 billion cards and credit cards almost 800 million as of 2020.
- China UnionPay (CUP) is the most common card used in China, although Visa-branded cards are being increasingly adopted by local banks.
- Chip-embedded payment cards in the form of IC-based bank cards are being promoted by the PBOC in a move away from renminbi-denominated magnetic cards.
- Transactions are processed and cleared via CNAPS–BEPS same day or next day.
- Automated Teller Machine (ATM) and Electronic Funds Transfer at Point of Sale (EFTPOS) networks are operated by CUP. ATM coverage was increasing in line with the use of payment cards, but has begun to decline over the last couple of years due to the rise in mobile payments and the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic.
- Fintech has been widely integrated across China’s banking industry, prominently in areas such as online lending, consumer finance, online money market funds, online insurance, personal financial management and online brokerage.
- Mobile banking is a rapidly increasing mode of banking by the big banks and third-party providers, offering a wide variety of banking services online. The most popular mobile banking apps are offered by China Construction Bank, Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, and Ping An Pocket Bank.
- Mobile wallet use is a major payment medium, with China having the largest mobile payment market in the world (in terms of value of transactions). Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay are the two dominant mobile payment apps. Both offer payment and transfer facilities, whether online or offline using QR codes and personal identification numbers (PINs), and target small and medium-sized enterprises
- Online and mobile payments have outstripped the use of payment cards, their growth hastened by COVID-19 restrictions. China’s digital buyer penetration rate in 2021 surpassed 55%.
- Cryptocurrency exchanges are currently banned in China, and the PBOC declared in June 2021 that banks must not provide products or services, such as trade, clearing or settlement, for crypto transactions.
- However, the PBOC also announced in July 2021 that it is expanding its digital yuan (eCNY) currency trial in several major cities, and that Beijing’s 2022 Winter Olympic Games will be the next key field for testing.
- With the successful completion of pilot programmes, the PBOC is close to becoming the first major central bank to issue a CBDC (central bank digital currency).
Cash, Cheques and Money Orders
- The Cashless Alliance, a collaboration with the United Nations Environmental Agency and 16 other partners, was set up to develop financial mechanisms to eliminate the use of physical payment cards and cash.
- However, the overwhelming growth of cashless systems has also triggered a directive from the PBOC for vendors not to discriminate or refuse cash payments.
- Cheques are a mode of payment used for retail and commercial payments. Cheques have to be validated with the company stamp and a handwritten signature; this medium of payment is not often used for personal use. Valid only for 10 days, cheques are limited to a written maximum value of RMB500,000.
- Inter-city cheques are converted into electronic form and then cleared through CIS, with final settlement done via CNAPS–BEPS. Payments are usually cleared within 48 hours. Local cheques are cleared by local clearing houses.
- Money orders are available in China through vendors such as Western Union and MoneyGram. Money can be sent domestically or internationally, either online or in person.
Foreign Exchange (FX)
China is pursuing a gradual internationalisation of the renminbi and an opening up of its financial systems. Despite these policies, significant exchange controls remain in place.
- The official currency of China is the renminbi (RMB).
- China’s monetary policy is set and managed by the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), which also sets interest rates.
- China does not have a floating exchange rate determined by market forces. Instead, the PBoC sets the trading range by currency pairs, so that the FX Spot rate of a currency against the RMB will be within a set range of the daily mid-point published by the China Foreign Exchange Trade System. For example, for the USD against the RMB, this range is 2%. This fixed point takes into account the previous days’ trading and a basket of world currencies.
- Onshore RMB and offshore RMB trade at slightly different rates, with the offshore RMB rate less tightly controlled.
- Foreign exchange policies, regulation and reserves in China are managed by the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE), which is overseen by the PBoC.
- Relaxations of foreign exchange controls are typically trialled in one of China’s free trade zones before being rolled out to the rest of the country.
- Resident companies can have domestic accounts denominated in both RMB and a wide range of foreign currencies. To open foreign exchange accounts overseas, companies require approval from SAFE, unless they are export enterprises opening accounts for export transactions, in which case they only need to register with SAFE. Overseas accounts for other types of companies must be for trading or project investment purposes.
- Non-resident companies or foreign entities may also hold accounts in both local and foreign currencies domestically and overseas, however, the process to open domestic accounts is highly regulated and requires extensive supporting documentation, as well as SAFE approval for foreign exchange accounts.
- Non-resident companies may take out foreign currency loans with overseas lenders for use in China. A special account is required in order to receive foreign currency from overseas for the purpose of clearing cross-border loans. Pre-registration with SAFE is required.
- A number of products are available to help companies manage foreign exchange risk in China, including FX options, FX spot and FX forward, cross currency swap, structured forward and non-deliverable forward.
- The PBoC recently removed its foreign risk reserve requirements for forward foreign exchange sales and settlement.
- All foreign exchange transactions must be conducted through a foreign exchange bank account offered by designated banks. Prior registration with SAFE is required.
- Working capital can only be moved in and out in accordance with strict rules and SAFE approval or registration.
- All current account transactions made from foreign currencies into RMB to cover local operating expenses must be backed by supporting documents to show they are for business operations. Conversions from RMB into foreign currencies to pay foreign vendors must also be documented.
- There is no tax on foreign exchange transactions.
- Inward remittances can be made through telegraphic transfers and demand drafts. Restrictions were recently relaxed to offer foreign companies more scope in using foreign capital to establish enterprises in China.
- Non-resident companies are generally allowed to remit dividends offshore providing certain conditions are met; 10% of post-tax profits must be allocated to a statutory reserve until the reserve balance is equal to 50% of registered capital. Dividends are also subject to 10% withholding tax.
- Outbound intercompany payments for supporting services and intangible assets can also be made by non-resident companies. Service fees are subject to VAT and royalties to withholding tax of 10%. Transaction documents must be maintained to demonstrate the payment is authentic.
- Financial services institutions must report all cross-border transactions made by companies when a single transaction or the cumulative transactions in one day exceed RMB2 million or the foreign currency equivalent of USD200,000.
- Domestic intercompany lending is allowed, but is only tax deductible subject to thin capitalisation rules and a safe harbour debt/equity ratio for enterprises in the financial industry of 5:1 and for enterprises in other industries of 2:1.
- Cross-border outbound intercompany loans are allowed in both RMB and foreign currency as long as the maximum loan amount does not exceed 30% of the lender’s shareholder equity and certain other conditions are met. Prior registration with SAFE is required for all cross-border outbound intercompany loan drawdowns.
- Companies can invoice foreign trade business in either RMB or foreign currency.
Trade has played a significant role in China’s rapid economic growth. The country has a growing number of free trade zones. Its largest trading partners are the United States and Hong Kong and Japan, in terms of exports in US dollars.
- China has 21 free trade zones, including the Shanghai Free Trade Zone.
- China is a member of the World Trade Organization (WTO), and its trade finance regulations conform to WTO standards.
- China imposes sanctions on certain foreign corporations and individuals. The Ministry of Commerce has compiled an ‘unreliable entities list’ of foreign enterprises that are deemed to have damaged the rights and interests of Chinese firms or harmed China’s national security.
- China also has anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism measures in place, which are overseen by the China Anti-Money Laundering Monitoring and Analysis Center, the Anti-Money Laundering Bureau and the People’s Bank of China.
- Import licences are required for certain products that are classed as restricted goods or regulated commodities, such as certain machinery, automobiles and chemicals.
- Import duty is charged in ad valorem, specific, compound or sliding terms based on the customs valuation of the goods.
- China has six different categories for import tariffs, namely general rates, most-favoured nation rates, agreement rates, preferential rates, tariff rate quota rates and provisional rates. Tariffs charged on goods that have been identified as being necessary for key industries may be significantly lower than published rates.
- The importation of raw materials for processing and exporting may qualify for customs duty, import VAT and consumption tax exemptions on the part that will be re-exported.
- The free trade zones may offer preferential tariff rates or even exemptions.
- Additional tariffs have been applied to certain US goods due to ongoing US-China trade tensions. See here for further details.
- Value-added taxes and consumption taxes are charged in addition to import tariffs and are normally assessed at the point of importation.
- China has three categories of goods, namely: permitted, restricted, which require quotas or licences, and prohibited, which are banned from import into China.
- There are no risk mitigation or import financing requirements. A range of import financing options are available including letters of credit, documentary collections, contract advance and import factoring.
- Export licences are issued by the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. The longest valid period of an export license is six months and must be used within the current year of the issuance date. In general, each export license can only be used for one batch of goods. However, the license can be used for multiple batches (no more than 12) under certain circumstances. A special export licence is required for restricted items, and each shipment requires its own licence.
- Export duties are levied in ad valorem to the customs valuation of the goods. Exporters can generally obtain a refund of VAT on exported goods.
- The China Export Credit Insurance Company provides credit insurance for exports.
- Banks in China provide export credit financing and foreign exchange loans.
- Companies registered in China can keep their export proceeds abroad, but they must report this income and expenditure to the State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE).
Sources (Intro & Corporate Treasury)
World Economic Forum, Bank of International Settlements, Bank List, PwC, Trading Economics, World Bank, IMF, CEIC, Z/Yen, CIPS, Fitch Ratings.
Sources (Banking & Payments)
State Council (www.gov.cn), The People’s Bank of China, Bank of International Settlements, The Asian Banker, China Daily, Journal of Comparative Economics, Statista.
Sources (Foreign Exchange)
IMF, Bank of International Settlements, the Wall Street Journal, Trade Commissioner Service for the Government of Canada, Reuters, PwC, Deloitte, Pinsent Masons, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, KPMG, Norton Rose Fulbright.
Ministry of Commerce, People’s Republic of China, Trading Economics, US International Trade Administration, General Administration of Customs People’s Republic of China, KPMG, PwC.