How China Navigated the Dilemma of Trade Liberalization and Government Revenues


  • Yung-Hsing Guo

  • The author is grateful to Terrence Yu for his help in translating complicated Chinese terms and phrases into English. He is indebted to Jack Hou and the journal's referees for comments and suggestions on earlier drafts. He also thanks the National Science Council of Taiwan for financial support.


Many economists believe that in the long run, the aggregate performance of open economies is better than that of closed ones, and that open policies contribute significantly to economic development. At the same time, many political scientists and policy makers fear that, in the short run, one of the steps towards openness — trade liberalization — may harm government revenues. However, in the 1990s, China successfully navigated the dilemma of trade liberalization and government revenues. In this period, China decreased tariff and non-tariff barriers for WTO accession, but has achieved dramatically increased tariff revenues since 1999. This study explores how China implemented trade liberalization and simultaneously increased tariff revenues in the 1990s. It demonstrates that a series of institutional arrangements, including a reform of Criminal Law, rigorous anti-smuggling activities and a de facto tax imposed on the export sector, successfully curbed smuggling activities through the processing trade, and made foreign-invested manufacturing enterprises the major contributors to the stability of customs revenue. China's case shows that a prosperous, export-oriented and foreign-invested manufacturing sector could potentially provide a developing country with a source of customs revenue.