Are intergovernmental transfers in China equalizing?
Since 1994, China's central government has implemented a sequence of fiscal recentralization measures to increase its equalization capacity and reduce regional income disparities. However, the effect of intergovernmental transfers on equalization has been called into question by anecdotal evidence that seems to suggest that transfers from the center are not rule-based and are subject to heavy rent-seeking. Unlike past studies, which have focused on the equalization effects of total fiscal transfers from the center, this paper includes an examination of the equalization effects of different types of transfers because some transfers, which are inherently anti-equalizing, may mask the equalization effects of other types of transfers when they are lumped together to find the “average” effect. Using inequality measures, a decomposition of fiscal disparities, and dynamic panel data models, we find that China's intergovernmental transfer system that was established in 1994 does have some equalizing elements. To a large extent, these elements exist due to the mechanism designed to shrink the tax rebates that bear the legacy of the pre-1994 system; to a small extent, these elements exist due to the rule-based general-purpose transfer whose share in total transfers remains small but has increased since 2002. However, the equalization effects of the largest component of transfers, specific-purpose transfers, are anti-equalizing. They are typically not rule-based and thus subject to political influence. As a result, total transfers also exhibit significant anti-equalization effects.
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