New tax regime has shaken up China’s cross-border e-commerce sector

2 min read

China’s cross-border e-commerce firms have gone through a reshuffle with mixed performances since the government introduced a new tax regime for cross-border e-commerce one year ago. While some players were knocked out of the game, some medium-sized firms have been starting to thrown off their cross-border e-commerce label and extending to other businesses (in Chinese).

Last March, the Ministry of Finance launched a new tax regime for cross-border e-commerce retail imports (in Chinese), aimed at closing tax loopholes and facilitating fairness of trading. The new tax policy, effective April 8, 2016, made changes to types of taxes, tax rates, and purchase price cap of imported commodities.

In addition, the customs authorities published a whitelist involving 1,142 commodity items, stipulating that only those on the list can be imported to China through cross-border e-commerce.

And regulatory hurdles like requirements of some documents such as import licenses and certificates of origin of certain items on the positive list have dealt a crushing blow to some industry players, as they are unable to complete customs clearance procedures without providing the aforementioned documents required on the certificate of inspection for goods inward. The procurement teams of these firms who buy items from overseas shopping stores can only have the sales invoices rather than documents such as certificates of origin, as they don’t directly deal with brands.

Under the new policy regime, firms that often rely on foreign hit items to attract customers and drive sales of their other commodities have had to cut margins to unprofitable levels as they resort to middleman links due to a lack of direct supply chain for these hit items. Even so, they often face the out-of-stock case for such hit products.

Cross-border e-commerce firms were caught quite unprepared by the policy overhaul, which led to rising logistics costs as well as slowed logistics speed and item return and exchange services.

Around half to 70% of cross-border e-commerce firms reportedly were forced to shut down last year, hit by cash strains or insufficient supply of hit goods (in Chinese).

Some players such as Jumei (聚美优品 in Chinese) and Mia (蜜芽 in Chinese) have started to diversify away from their core business into new areas. Jumei continued to raise the ante on its film and television unit, while Mia has been expanding its footprint in offline maternal and child business.

Big players such as Amazon China, Ymatou (洋码头 in Chinese), TMall. hk (天猫国际 in Chinese) and JD.hk (京东全球购 in Chinese) were impervious to the policy twist and continued their strong performance, thanks to their financial muscle and extensive supply channels.

The current lull in the capital market also spread to the cross-border e-commerce sector, whose financing deal sizes shrank last year since. Investors have begun to keep increasingly cautious about pouring money into the sector, as a wave of shutdowns of some firms as well as policy swings have set off an alarm bell. Import e-commerce site Metao (蜜淘 in Chinese) burned through all its cash and collapsed last year, although it had secured more than US$ 35 million in financing.

Despite the bumpy course, China’s cross-border e-commerce market is still too huge to be overlooked. The market (including retail and B2B) sized RMB 6.3 trillion in 2016, more than twice that of 2013, while the figure could reach RMB 8.8 trillion in 2018, according to a report released by market-research firm iiMedia (艾媒咨询 in Chinese).