China's Property Owners Face Disclosure

An analysis by Michael Lelyveld
china-real-estate-model-sept-2013.jpg Chinese homebuyers look at models of apartment buildings during a real estate fair in Henan province, Sept. 7, 2013.

China's government may have hit a new snag as it seeks to keep housing prices from soaring out of control.

On Jan. 11, a top official of China's Ministry of Land and Resources said the government will create a central registry bureau for real estate information, state media reported.

The new bureau is "designed to improve unified system design for registration as China will spell out related regulations this year," Vice Minister Xu Deming said, according to the official Xinhua news agency.

Behind the bureaucratic language is a plan to lay the groundwork for major reforms in the property sector.

The government has been trying to keep housing costs from rising beyond the reach of new entrants to China's cities, but so far with little success.

In December, average home prices climbed for the 19th month in a row, a survey by the China Index Academy said.

Existing home prices in December jumped 20 percent from a year earlier in Beijing, the National Bureau of Statistics (NBS) said. New home prices also rose 20 percent in the first-tier cities of Guangzhou and Shenzhen, Bloomberg News reported.

Rampant real estate investment has been blamed for the surge, but the sources of investment have not always been easy to trace.

Unified registration

Last November, the State Council, or cabinet, first announced it would organize various registration offices into a "single information-sharing platform," the official English-language China Daily reported.

"Currently there are many local registries and systems that aren't linked, making it difficult to determine who owns what," said The Wall Street Journal. Registration has been supervised by as many as nine government departments, the paper said.

Unified registration is needed to expand rural property rights so that farmers can sell land, become socially mobile and advance urbanization by buying apartments in cities.

Registration is also a preliminary step to imposing a property tax, which is seen as the way to discourage speculation by the well-to-do in high-priced or multiple homes.

In November, the Third Plenary Session of the ruling Chinese Communist Party's Central Committee pledged to "accelerate property tax legislation and related reform at an appropriate time," without saying when.

But conflicts over registration have already surfaced before the tax can be imposed.

On Jan. 12, the party-affiliated Beijing Youth Daily voiced concerns about public disclosures of property ownership.

"There need to be restrictions on requests for information to protect citizens' privacy," wrote the paper's commentator Pan Hongqi. "However, any approach that sets excessively strict terms and denies supervision attempts should be avoided," Pan said, according to Xinhua.

The mixed reaction reflects the complexity of China's property problem, which is linked to a host of societal and economic issues.

Wealth gap

Despite the lack of progress on prices, the government is determined to curb the high cost of housing, which has only highlighted the gap between rich and poor.

For the relatively well-off, real estate represents one of the few attractive opportunities for investment, since bank savings and the stock market have offered poor returns.

Last year, property investment rose 19.8 percent from a year earlier to 8.6 trillion yuan (U.S. $1.4 trillion) after climbing 16.2 percent in 2012, the NBS said.

But unnecessary building of unaffordable properties has led to unsustainable development, creating a real estate bubble and environmental damage at the same time.

The property tax has been promoted as a solution, but public disclosure of ownership may bring political risks for officials with unexplained sources of wealth.

Beijing Youth Daily and Xinhua cited the celebrated cases of multiple property owners, nicknamed "Sister House" and "Uncle House," who have been jailed for amassing real estate through illicit means.

In the Uncle House scandal, a former police official in Guangzhou was sentenced to 11 years in prison for bribe-taking after he and his family were found to own 22 homes.

Targeting corruption

Since taking office last March, President Xi Jinping has promised to punish corruption at all levels, famously vowing to pursue both "tigers" and "flies." But no one is sure how high the investigations will go.

While top officials have repeatedly pledged to stamp out corruption, private citizens have been targeted for advocating the same thing.

Last week, prominent activist Xu Zhiyong was put on trial in Beijing for disrupting public order after his New Citizens Movement called for officials to disclose their sources of wealth.

On Sunday, the No. 1 Intermediate People's Court sentenced Xu to four years in prison. In a statement, the U.S. State Department called Xu "a leading public advocate for fiscal transparency and fighting official corruption," and urged his immediate release.

In another sign of official sensitivity, China's censors have blocked the websites of The New York Times and Bloomberg News in China following their reports on investment interests of the families of top officials, including former Premier Wen Jiabao.

Fear of further revelations could hinder creation of the unified registration system and slow implementation of the property tax, prolonging the over-investment that has pushed prices through the roof.

Sensitive sector

Gary Hufbauer, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics in Washington, said the government may be caught between the implications of its housing and anti-corruption campaigns.

"Real estate wealth is most of the wealth in China," Hufbauer said. "So, anything to do with the property sector is pretty sensitive."

"If the results of the registry are made public, then that will trigger a lot of concerns, because many people, including many government people, own a lot more property than the average person expects," he said.

But non-disclosure will carry its own risks, creating skepticism about the government's anti-corruption drive and suspicion that tax breaks are being secretly handed out to the rich.

"They're really caught in between," Hufbauer said.

Property taxes were launched on a trial basis in Shanghai and Chongqing in 2011, but the assessments so far have been small, mostly affecting high-end and multiple dwellings.

The November statement from the Third Party Plenum raised expectations that the taxes will be piloted in more cities, but the pace of a national policy may now depend on the questions surrounding the unified registry.

If the new bureau takes years to organize and coordinate, as some expect, it could give officials with multiple properties and their families more time to cover their tracks.

But in the meantime, the government seems likely to pursue an inconsistent policy on disclosure and housing prices may continue to climb on China's unsustainable course.

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