Op-Ed Commentary: Chris Devonshire-Ellis
Nov. 11 – An issue that frequently crops up at this time of year is the question of getting earned income out of China. As many expatriates look to leave to go home for Christmas, those piles of RMB that have been stacking up nicely begin to look mouth-watering in terms of repatriating the readies. But here comes a catch – for expatriates legitimately employed in China, and paying tax here, there is not a problem. But for those working in China’s grey economy – there is. Let me explain.
China employs strict currency regulations that are designed to prevent large amounts of currency moving out of the country. Your small amount may not seem like a huge deal, but if everyone moved out a few thousand dollars, it would impact upon China’s economy. The movement of illicit cash both into and out of China is known as “hot money” and it can seriously damage a country’s financial stability if not regulated. China controls and monitors the amounts of money coming into and out of the country through a mechanism known as SAFE – The State Administration of Foreign Exchange. In order to legitimately take money out of China (typically wire transfer), an application needs to be made to SAFE (your bank would normally assist with this procedure) with proof of income taxes paid in China, and details of the overseas bank account the funds are to be wired to. The onus is on the applicant therefore to demonstrate the money was legitimately earned and taxes have been paid on it. If so, the money is permitted to be repatriated and there is no daily or annual ceiling limiting the amount an individual can transfer. This should not be a problem for expatriates in China with proper working contracts, visas and tax registrations.
However, many expats in China fall into a different category. Either by design or default (Chinese employers sometimes take advantage and do not fully explain this issue), there are expatriates in China who are not properly registered with the authorities, are not paying taxes, and who have nonetheless acquired a bundle of RMB. Here, there is a problem. Firstly, such individuals cannot meet the SAFE requirements, and this becomes a block. Chinese banks will not allow you to exchange and wire overseas any amount over the RMB equivalent of US$500 for you without SAFE approval, and if there is no tax paid receipts (employers should provide this) or no work permit or visa, this route is barred.
It should be noted, though, that foreign nationals can transfer any amount under or equal to the equivalent of US$500 once per day without providing proof that the money was legitimately earned or that taxes have been paid on it. Chinese nationals are able to transfer the equivalent of US$2,000 per day into a foreign bank account, however Chinese nationals face a US$50,000 annual ceiling when exchanging RMB into foreign currencies while foreign nationals do not face such restrictions.
Under these circumstances, the only practical ways to solve this are as follows:
- If you thought your employer has misled you over your status, you may have a case. In which case, you’ll need to find a local friendly lawyer to assist. However this may take time to resolve.
- China does permit the traveling outside of China with up to RMB20,000 or equivalent. You may pack up to this amount and be safe (any more and you face confiscation of all the money if caught). The problem with this is that RMB is not freely exchangeable, and it may be hard to convert it when back home. Hong Kong does provide such facilities – although be warned – the exchange rate issue will be a killer.
- If more than RMB20,000, you may divide the total up among friends to limit the amount each carries. But make sure they’re good friends!
- If you have a Chinese friend that you trust, you can transfer the money to their Chinese bank account and they can wire a maximum of US$2,000 per day to your overseas bank account. You can also do this yourself, but foreign nationals are limited to US$500 per day.
- If you intend to return to China, deposit the money into a bank and withdraw up to the legal amount each time you leave.
- Convert your RMB into a saleable asset that you can convert to cash back home. China does limit the amount of goods value being exported from the country, but are less likely to question personal belongings. Buying and shipping items from a reputable Chinese fine art dealer may be a solution.
- Next time, be aware that working in China without paying tax is illegal. It can impact on even realizing the money earned. If in doubt, get a friendly lawyer to look at your employment contract terms and ensure that hard won income can be readily – and legally – repatriated.
In terms of item (6), I can relate a recent anecdote. Admiring a hugely expensive diamond necklace in a Chinese jewelry store recently, I enquired about who was going to be lucky enough to wear it. The carefully worded reply was “Oh Sir! This necklace will never be worn.”
Dezan Shira & Associates can review employment contracts and provide advice on their legalities and impact on expatriate employees. Please contact the practice at firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit the firm’s web site at www.dezshira.com.
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