For foreign visitors to China, Chongqing might best be known as the port city where their Yangtze River excursions begin. For locals, the heaving southwestern urban jungle is more likely to stand out on their map for another reason: Its burgeoning property market whose jaw-dropping prices are squeezing out all but the wealthiest investors. Chongqing is far from alone. As prices soar, research from Zheshang Securitiesshows that commercial and residential property buyers in 2008 were paying a hefty premium of 255% over the national average in China's tier-one cities, and 140% in Chongqing and other smaller tier-two and tier-three cities.

All told, cities like Chongqing look increasingly like they're sitting on a huge property bubble that's ready to pop dramatically. One U.S. hedge fund veteran, Jim Chanos of Kynikos Associates, told the Financial Times in January that he is now short on China property stocks, pointing out that based on China's preliminary 2010 accounts, fixed asset investment — including real estate — is at a record 70% of GDP; in comparison, at the peak of property bubble in 2006 and 2007 in the U.K. and the U.S., such investments were in the "high teens."

Though a national problem, it's Chongqing, along with Shanghai, that the central government has singled out by making them the country's first-ever local authorities to tax residential property. Under the pilot programs — which have no set end date — Shanghai residents must now pay an annual tax of 0.6% on second homes bought after January 28 and non-residents must pay 0.6% on any new home bought in Shanghai, or 0.4% if they meet certain conditions. Meanwhile, Chongqing's package of taxes has three rates — 0.5%, 1% and 1.2% — depending on the type and price of properties purchased.

But trying to curb speculation and cool the market aren't the sole reasons for the tax, said an entourage of government officials at a press conference held the day before the pilot projects began on January 28. Another aim: To begin an overhaul of the nation's fiscal program, which until this year taxed commercial and industrial but not residential property, denying local governments an important revenue stream. According to the officials, the revenue generated from the new taxes will go toward building more low-income housing for the poor and other much-needed infrastructure in the country's fast-growing urban centers.

While the new trial schemes have won applause in many business and financial circles, some commentators say expectations need to be reined in. "It’s unrealistic to expect that the real estate tax alone will lower housing prices,” says Ji Shaozhong, deputy director of the Shanghai Putuo district tax bureau. Nor can the tax address the larger problems facing China’s real estate market. Like other recent government measures, the new local taxes may only be a short-term fix — if one at all — to both deflate asset bubbles and bolster municipal balance sheets. What's needed, many argue, are deeper structural reforms to the country's woefully out-dated taxation system. That, of course, is much easier said than done.

Eight Steps Forward…

There's good reason why Shanghai and Chongqing are the guinea pigs. Even after some preliminary market-cooling government measures, China Index Academy (CIA), an independent, Beijing-based research and consulting company, found that prices for residential property in Chongqing rose 37.9% between 2009 and 2010, to RMB 5,943 (US$901) per square meter. In Shanghai, they jumped 13.4% over the same period, to RMB 13,316 per square meter. Others say property prices are continuing to climb even higher than that. State-owned newspaper Oriental Morning Post reported in January that average house prices in Shanghai rose to a record RMB 24,176 a square meter in December, up 7.6% from November and 21% from January 2010.

Changes aren't just happening in Shanghai and Chongqing. Two days before the unveiling of the pilot projects, Beijing issued “Eight National Measures,” which are arguably the most radical of the various property-related measures rolled out over the past year. The eight measures raise the minimum down payment for second-home purchases from 50% to 60% and set mortgage rates 10% higher than the benchmark rate. They also set various residency requirements, and local governments have also been asked to increase the amount of land available for development and set price ranges for newly built homes.

As all those measures take hold, the challenge for the government will be to confront the needs of various interest groups. The first are the individual investors, including the country's thousands of so-called "house slaves," home buyers who have invested the savings of several generations and taken on huge mortgages to finance property purchases. Many Chinese see real estate as one of the few — if not only — secure, long-term investment options they have. Unlike with property, for example, investments in stocks and shares in China have been volatile. As for any interest-based investment products, they are neither high yielding nor widely available to the general public. And parking savings in bank accounts is even less enticing given the recent period of negative real interest rates and now rising inflation.

Without lucrative alternatives, experts predict that new taxes and ownership restrictions will do little to dampen the property shopping sprees. “If we look at market demand now, many people who purchase more than one apartment do so for wealth preservation,” says Long Shengping, professor of East China Normal University, director of the China Real Estate Evaluation Center (CREEC) and vice dean of the Shanghai E-House Real Estate Research Institute. “The real estate tax won’t have any significant impact on them.”

Nor will the tax and other measures have much impact on local government coffers. Under a system set up in the 1990s, local governments currently receive less than a third of most of the tax revenue, despite the fact that they, not Beijing, provide the bulk of public services, according to Liu Zuo, director of the Taxation Science Research Institute affiliated with China's State Administration of Taxation. That imbalance leaves local governments under constant budgetary pressures, and many have become reliant on land conveyance charges and the use of land as collateral for bank loans to make ends meet.

Ji says he's skeptical that revenue from the tax will be high enough to discourage local governments from selling land, especially after the record amounts they've been raising recently. According to the Ministry of Land, land sales receipts increased 70.4% in 2010 to a record RMB 2.7 trillion, or 33.75% of all fiscal revenues in China. Beijing raised the most last year, selling RMB 163.9 billion of land, followed by Shanghai with RMB 153 billion, accounting for over half of the city’s RMB 287.4 billion in revenues.

He also points out that real estate is already one of the most regulated and taxed sectors in China. According to Ji, real estate developers are subject to more than 10 separate taxes or fees. The sector’s tax burden is second only to the tobacco and alcohol industry, which is traditionally the highest taxed sector in China. What's urgently needed, he says, is a plan to streamline all these and other taxes.

A New Start

Amid the high hopes of many, it might be better to view the property tax as a sign of bigger changes ahead. According to the government's current Five Year Plan, which began this year, the residential property tax is part of a package of measures that, if implemented, would reduce overall tax burdens while changing the distribution of revenue, says Liu. Seen in this context, the importance of the residential property tax isn't so much its immediate impact on the market, but rather that it may be the first step of several aimed at changing how local governments manage fiscal revenue.

A shakeup has been coming for a long time. In the 2009 book Smart Urban Growth for China, Chengri Ding, a professor at the University of Maryland, and Yan Song from the University of North Carolina note that while the country's six non-residential land and property taxes have grown rapidly over the past 20 years, their share as a percentage of total tax revenues was an "unimpressive" 3.65% in 2002. They have been among the many voices calling for residential property taxes along the lines of what Shanghai and Chongqing are now levying.

CREEC's Long agrees that the new taxes serve a larger purpose than home buyers and others might immediately see. “Reducing house prices involves multiple issues and shouldn’t be the direct goal of the real estate tax. We should not be using property prices as a benchmark to evaluate the success of the tax,” he says. He doubts that the real estate tax or the Eight National Measures will fundamentally change market behavior. “It may change the behavior of some marginal investors and consumers, or it may delay the timing for people seeking to buy real estate.”

He also notes that there are larger forces affecting the sector. As China continues to urbanize, for example, pressure is growing for governments to provide more affordable housing. Still, he reckons that the new tax will over the longer term help shape the development of the real estate sector. “The pilot projects are a conservative measure, but it has sent a signal to the market. It will help the government gain experience in regulating [the market] without wreaking havoc,” Long says. “Problems will emerge during the pilots, but these will be tackled."