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Home » Uncategorized » “You can choose an official receipt or a can of Sprite” – Dodging taxes in China

“You can choose an official receipt or a can of Sprite” – Dodging taxes in China

A few weeks ago I was at a duck restaurant and the time came to pay the bill. At just under 100RMB, I knew that asking for an official receipt (发票 fapiao) would give me a chance to win some money. When I approached the register though, I was given a choice between an official receipt and a can of Sprite.

If you’re scratching your head at this point, don’t worry, so was my mother-in-law.

In an effort to boost tax compliance, I’m not sure when exactly, China enacted a policy that tied tax payments with official receipts. So for example, if the tax is 10% than a 50RMB receipt costs the restaurant 5RMB (or cab company or local handyman, etc.). Since these are required by companies for reimbursement, there is a good reason for many people to ask for these receipts.

Casual diners however, don’t actually need an official receipt. So the gov’t came up with a plan to encourage this behavior. On practically every official receipt there is a “prize” section that functions something like a scratch ticket. From what I’ve seen, prizes range from 5-50RMB, which is enough incentive for most people to ask for the receipt.

The restaurant I happened to be at that evening did the math though, and decided to pay taxes in a similar fashion to Deal or No Deal; you can either take the guaranteed prize of a can of Sprite (worth ~2RMB) or you can risk it all on the chance at a bigger cash prize. My wife and I realized that we were better off with the can of Sprite and went on our way. The restaurant was pleased to be saving close to 8RMB after subtracting the cost of the beverage, and we were happy to have a free Sprite.

These kinds of dodges are fairly common throughout China. I first experienced this in Guangxi when a repairman offered his services for 42RMB without the official receipt (he did offer an unofficial receipt or 收据 shouju) or 45RMB with the official receipt. Since I needed to be reimbursed I took the official receipt, but was surprised at how bold the dodge was.

The school later told me that the shouju would have been just fine, they too were swayed by 3RMB.

While it might be less than ethical to help restaurants dodge taxes, I’ve also seen that my local gov’t offices have both a ping pong room and a billiards room. I’m guessing that many others are using similar reasoning for avoiding taxes.

Photo by @PekingMike The traditional "parade of the Audis" at the #NPC in Beijing.

Official receipts though, also provide the opportunity for scamming companies as well as the gov’t. The old woman who stands at the end of the line where bus-cards are recharged, collects unwanted receipts and then later sells them to those who might walk or ride their bikes to work. This allows less scrupulous employees to scam 3-5 yuan from their companies each day (taxi receipts can be far more valuable). Given the number of elderly women mumbling “发票, 发票, 发票” outside of my nearby subway station, it seems like this would be a fairly common practice.

While China’s tax system manages to introduce clear incentives for customers to get businesses to pay their taxes, there is still so little oversight of the businesses that loopholes abound. Additionally, the system allows employees to cheat their employers by creating additional paperwork that is difficult to trace.


  1. Rod in China says:

    This is what I don’t get

    “This allows less scrupulous employees to scam 3-5 yuan from their companies each day”

    Do people not realize that 3-5 yuan per day doesn’t even buy 1 meal in the city? All that effort to scam, collect, save, and scrape together a few kuai could be spent on more fruitful endeavors. Though I understand the old people that do it – old people are like that all over the world – employees are unbelievable. One person could maybe save 1-200 kuai per month. Maybe the entire restaurant could save a couple hundred or a thousand.

    Is it worth the time, effort, and the loss of dignity worth it?

    • James says:

      It surprised the local egg seller when I bought from him the first time, and I didn’t bother to bargain over the cost of 15 eggs. He commented that I must be rich, since all his other customers bargain.

      I wouldn’t spend 2 minutes to save maybe 7 mao, but almost all of his other customers would spend the time, and effort, and feel no loss of dignity.

    • nichtich says:

      actually that’s the other way around — even if you don’t really care about the money, you shouldn’t show it. Otherwise people will think you as either “too rich” or “too stupid”, both are bad for common people.

  2. Lorin Yochim says:

    It isn’t surprising(n fact predictable) that a market has arisen around fa piao. They have real value and therefore are bought and sold. There is a factual problem, however, with seeing all pursuit of them as corruption or ripping off the boss. Before these arrived on the scene, it could be a real struggle for people to get reimbursed for legitimate expenses. In countries where receipts and credit cards are universally available and accepted, this is no problem at all. In the Chinese company I worked in, employees often had to put money up front and then had to struggle to be reimbursed. Before the official receipts were widely available, this must have been an absolute nightmare for accountants. And of course that system was utterly corrupt as one could simply write one’s own receipts if necessary. In order to understand the need for and abuses of the present system, one really needs to look at what things were like before it came along.

    • Tom says:

      Still a nightmare for people to get reimbursed, especially since everyone is aware of the market for fapiao. My office deals with the receipts, and there are frequent arguments over their validity and whether or not the person over paid. It seems like one easily manipulated system has been replaced with another.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Absolutely. One also wonders about how this system favours large scale operations (i.e., restaurants or others with the scale to offset the costs) over smaller outfits. Still, it’s surprising the effort even the enormous places put into getting you to choose the gift over the fapiao. All in all, it’s a murky business.

  3. James says:

    I was not surprised by this in China, but it did surprise me in Canada, and it took me a second to think why he was asking when he asked me in English if I needed a reciept.

  4. Lorin Yochim says:

    Tom, I just re-read the post as I may have misread the first time. My understanding is that the fapiao itself is a cost to the restaurant. By not issuing it, it saves the cost of issuing the fapiao. My assumption was that this is a way of ensuring that expenses listed as deductions from income/revenue are legitimate. Are you saying that the intent of the program is to trace the issuer company’s revenue and that every purchase ought to result in a fapiao being issued? I’m a little confused about who is dodging taxes.

    • James says:

      The intent is to document revenue. Almost all businesses in China do cash transactions. Cash transactions are easily hidden.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        For sure. It’s really an unusual strategy, though. Unless the system is being slowly introduced across sectors, it’s far from universal. Maybe there are different requirements for different industries or only for enterprises of a certain size? Maybe I’ll have to spend some time in the accounting section.

      • James says:

        I’m sure you’ve had taxi drivers bargain the price before setting off, and not using the meter, since the meter print out is your reciept. (as an example of another small cash-only business and reciepts)

        But my friends in Beijing who work in Shougang (the iron & steel company) say that Shougang often accepts payment in steel, pig iron, ore and coal in lieu of cash, and that must be an accounting nightmare.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I haven’t seen that with taxis, no, except around tourist sites. I’ve been away for a while so maybe the practice is becoming more common. My more common experience is that taxi drivers will give me a spool of receipts that people haven’t taken in the past number of trips. That may be a result of living in a smaller city where the clientele is different and the receipts quite small. I was thinking about places like the big electronic markets where receipts are more or less optional. I wonder if those places are seen as a lost cause or if they haven’t been integrated yet or if there another system of audit in place? Another one I can think of are the stores like Carrerfour where you have to go through quite an annoying process to get the fapiao (and only for certain categories of purchases). Presumably those fapiao have little to do with tracking their revenue for taxation purposes.

      • James says:

        Almost every time I arrive back at a train station or ariport after 6pm, the taxi drivers are standing around, and approach to ask my destination, when I tell them, some turn away as it’s not on their way home. Then some will tell me their price to go there, and I bargain, and I know they won’t turn on the meter.

        I haven’t asked, but it could be because most of the police have gone back to their stations once rush hour is over, and so a taxi with a passenger, yet with light on and meter up won’t end up getting a fine.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        I’ll assume that’s in Beijing, James? If so, I stand corrected and shame-faced. I’ve actually given up taking taxis from Beijing train stations (unless I’m alone and willing to stand in line underground). That BS of negotiating trips is well out of hand at this point and looks very bad on the city. I take the bus/underground whenever possible, although that is a serious pain in the arse with a toddler in tow. It seems the problem is worst around train stations and airports, but I hadn’t linked it to the fapiao specifically. Aren’t those outside-the-station-queue taxis able to do this in part because they can poach for people not willing to stand in line?

      • James says:

        Beijing, Tianjin, Taiyuan, Shenyang… pretty much any city I’ve been to in China,

        The taxi queue generally seems to break down completely past 8pm-ish, but yeah, I guessed that those people were outside the queue to avoid the rules. Though I wouldn’t have said there was a recognizable queue in Urumqi, at the train station or the airport in the afternoon.

        My reason for avoiding the queue is that I prefer to get a taxi headed the right direction on the roadway rather than put up with the “but we can’t pull a u-turn here” or waiting for traffic, or the ever popular lets-see-if-the-foreigner-knows-anything-about-the-direction-of-his-destination game.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        It’s funny, I used to think that China has some of the most honest drivers I’d ever encountered, so that station front game is particularly vexing. My first overseas taxi driver experience was in Athens. The less said the better. I’d still maintain than most China taxi drivers are real salt of the earth types, and they are great informants when you want to get a straight-talking opinion on just about anything. If they’re in a bad mood, you can always commiserate with them over the rising price of fuel.

      • James says:

        I know three taxi drivers – I see them around the nighborhood, and I’ve ridden with them often enough to know a bit about them, and their wives, or in one case, cousin, drive day shift, and they drive evening shift. They are salt-of-the-earth types of guys, very personable and helpful.

        The taxi drivers at the stations can be real sharks, smiling and friendly as they attempt to take arm and leg.

        I haven’t had more than 20 or so female taxi drivers, and all of them were very professional and careful, but for the men, one grey-haired driver just about made my hair turn grey, and this was after several years of being in China. It really took me 15 minutes to calm down after that ride, my heart was pounding. He almost had that Miandi on two wheels around corners. It was like he was practicing for a rally car race in 7am traffic.

  5. macroidtoe says:

    When I first learned that you get a little scratch-off lottery ticket with your receipt, I thought “Oh, that’s kind of cool” and always asked for them from then on.

    When I later was offered a free juice box because a restaurant was “out of receipts,” I thought “Huh… that’s odd. Like they owe me something for not having the receipt?”

    It wasn’t until someone told me exactly what the losing tickets said (“Thank you for paying tax” or something like that) that I realized how the whole system works… and had a good laugh. No one else thought it was that funny. :

  6. Lao Why? says:

    Fa piao are required for every transaction. It is indeed a way to document revenue. Aside from corporate income taxes which would be reduced by not reporting the sale, the seller would not be liable for VAT or its service related twin tax, business revenue. VAT can be up to 17% of the transaction amount and corporate tax is 25% of pretax income.
    If you park a car in Beijing, the parking attendant (there’s a human being that does this on every block) will tell you one price with fa piao and another, lower price without fa piao. He pockets the money for customers who don’t need the fa piao.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Clearly things are more advanced in Beijing that Shijiazhuang! 😉 At any rate, I’ll head back this summer for an update. Perhaps I can earn some extra cash optioning my unneeded fapiao. Can you answer my question above about different sectors? If I go to Hong Qiao these days, should I be able to get a fapiao? Let’s leave aside the argument that would ensue if I actually did ask for one.

      • Lao Why? says:

        Yes you should be able to get a fa piao at Hong Qiao. Any licensed merchant should have a machine. Some places have tablets of fa piao but that is “old school” and not secure.
        Perhaps your better experiences with cab drivers is that the meter is an automatic revenue recorder so once the cabbie hits the button, he is automatically reporting his revenue. There would be little point to negotiating a discount after he hits the meter.

        Although I am not an expert because I don’t sell fa piao, a common place to sell your fa piao in Beijing is the East Train Station. Of all the places that I have been in Beijing, that is the place where it seems easiest to identify buyers. They unabashedly yell out “fa piao! fa piao!”

        Was your crazy ride in Beijing? My colleague may have had that guy! He actually at one point on Chang An Jie turned around and said in broken English “I am Michael Schumacher” and then proceeded to weave in and out of traffic at twice the speed limit. My colleague and his friend were pressed from side to side of the back of the cab and sure enough, my colleague’s wallet fell out. He discovered this later but luckily had the cab number and was able to reach the cab driver, who was happy to return the wallet…for a fee. Starting price for the return was 600 RMB.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Sorry to beat this to death, but what I meant to ask about Hong Qiao is this: is that vendor at the tiny little stall that sold me that “Beijing huan ying ni!” t-shirt required by law to give me one? I know I can get one if I want.

  7. mopedchi says:

    @Lao Why?
    Or the other way around. Parking attendant at the Summer Palace told us our parking was RMB10; my friend offered RMB8 and no need for a fa piao. He took the offer and we “saved” RMB2.

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  9. A good take on an old story. This is the way things have been in Tianjin since I first started paying attention (2006), and maybe earlier. The “no fapiao = lower price” trend has made its way to mainstream retailers in Beijing and Shanghai — to the tune of thousands of RMB when it comes to electronics — but if you get a fapiao and work for a Chinese company it also enables a tax dodge, since companies offer employees bonuses in exchange for official invoices which, in turn, allow the companies to pay less tax. Another funny anecdote about restaurant fapiaos: when she orders food, one of my friends tells the waiter that they’re going to want a fapiao with the bill, so please go ahead and give her the free Sprite/Cola/Fanta now so she can drink it with her meal. Preemptive fapiao strike!

  10. Lao Why? says:

    I am not an attorney but my understanding is that a properly licensed seller of merchandise is required to provide you a fa piao. Fa piao cover the purchase of goods or services. Many grocery stores provide you a cash register receipt which is not an official fa piao. However, if you ask for an official fa piao, they must provide it. There is no legal difference with the Hong Qiao merchant. However, I suspect that in some cases, they might refuse the sale because they do not have the forms or they are not licensed or both.
    The need for a piao comes up mostly in service areas because of the reasons put forth before, employees want their travel and business expenses reimbursed and a fa piao is evidence of the expense. But any store selling goods must provide fa piao if requested.

  11. du depp says:

    Tax dodging is a gloabal phenomenon. In the UK, private builders/service men do this on a daily basis and become instant millionaires in a matter of years because they give customers the choice of Vat or not, hiding their true earnings in receipts.
    Obviously there is less regulation in china, therefore everyone can do it. i also assume taxmen are less aggressive than those in the UK.

  12. Niko says:

    Tom, are you seriously proud enough to blog of the fact that you didn’t get an official receipt so that the government can get their taxes because you were offered something (that you didn’t earn) in order to get a sure thing (a measly can of Sprite?) instead of being entered in a draw to win money? You were offered a chance to do the right thing and you blew it.

    I’ve been following your blog for a few months now and usually enjoy learning about China and reminiscing from your perspective. But I don’t respect your decision and the fact that you follow it up with other instances of how ‘everyone else is doing it’.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Yes, Tom, hide your mis-steps in the closet! 😉 I’m still a little dubious about the implication that the fa piao is meant as the sole means of accounting for revenues in businesses. Surely not issuing them makes evasion easier. There must be other evasions necessary along the way. I don’t think the consumer is responsible for ensuring that the business pays its taxes. Now where is that accountant to clear this up for me…

      • Lao Why? says:

        @ Niko,
        Welcome to China. We also have the moral conumdrum of whether to buy pirated DVDs at 8 kuai (Where does one buy a legal dvd in Beijing?) How about fake Addidas T shirts? What about the unlicensed jian bing man that Tom buys his breakfast?

        A foreigner is confronted with such dilemmas all the time in China. It will make your moral compass go silly, which sometimes is the point of this and other China blogs. To keep it in perspective, as Du Depp points out, such minor tax evasion happens in other countries as well.

      • Niko says:

        Lao Why, I’m well aware of these ‘moral conundrums’ you speak of. But I think that insisting on a proper receipt is pretty cut and dry. ‘So and so country/corporation does it to save xx dollars, so why can’t I’? Right, just look the shape the economies and social programs are there (Greece, anyone?).

        And Lorin, why shouldn’t the consumer be responsible for doing what is right? Where should doing what’s right start?

        Tom, I see you have responded to my comment in the meantime. I’m not sure if you’re being sarcastic by the last sentence. If not, there’s always next time. And if so, well..your tiny gain is everyone’s loss.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        @Niko, you have to take the entirety of my comment and the discussion earlier in this thread into account. First of all, the situation Tom describes is only this clear cut because Tom structures the reflection such that his judgment of this practice and his feelings of guilt are practically shouted out with a bullhorn. No bonus marks for my picking up on that. Second, while a number of people above claim that the way this system works to report revenue and enable taxation (I generally accept that), there is no way that the link between those fa piao and taxes is this simple. Note that according to a number of responses to my queries above, the receipt is available upon my request and not mandatory. The notion that I can force a vendor to pay taxes is no more true in China than it is in Whitehorse. Third, and this is spurred by Lao Why’s comment above, the difficulties of ethical consumption are far beyond the matter of whether or not the people I deal with pay their taxes. If that t-shirt is not a fake and I get a fa piao and the taxes are paid, shouldn’t I rest easy? Are there no other parties to whom I have ethical responsibility? Fourth, in certain situations like this, can I not make my own ethical choices, e.g., in choosing to buy jian bing from an unlicensed street vendor? No fa piao there. Does the right automatically rest with the law maker who would run that person off the street and, at best, into poorly compensated wage labour?

      • Niko says:

        Firstly, I don’t think it seemed like he was ‘shouting his guilt over choosing the Sprite with a bullhorn’. As long as there is the possibility of a restaurant paying their taxes like they should, why not do the simple action of requesting a receipt. Isn’t that why the program is in place? Because the government needs the revenue? The chance that it might get pilfered/others don’t is a convenient excuse. Of course it won’t all get to where it should. But there are governments that manage to have social programs/pension/etc and still have questionable spending.
        Clearly consumers have a choice, and often they will think of their own personal immediate benefit.

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        You’ve set an awfully high standard, Niko, when I have to request fa piao for every wu mao I spend. Eggs in the market? fa piao. Excuse me, taxi driver, but is your metre recording your income properly? Also, you haven’t addressed most of the points in my post, never mind Tom’s extremely important one about civil disobedience. We have to do a little better here than “doesn’t the government need the money?”

    • Tom says:

      I didn’t mean to imply that dodging taxes was something that I was proud of, but I thought it would be doubly dishonest to write this post and not admit that it was me. I used my own example to try and show the thought process behind dodging taxes, and illustrate the fact that few people want to pay taxes, but that in other countries we have to pay taxes. The example of “everybody else is doing it” was meant to try and illustrate some of the other reasons that may lay behind the dodges. Certainly the opacity of gov’t expenses is part of the reason that customers don’t feel an obligation to pay taxes.

      Additionally, when I actually sit down and write about the fact that I did opt for the can of Sprite has made me feel pretty darn guilty about what I did.

      • Tom says:

        No sarcasm was meant by the last sentence. In the future I’ll collect my receipts and be content with the chance at a prize.

        @Lao Why? my Jianbing man is licensed, but that doesn’t effect whether or not I would buy from him. I fully support the street vendors, who are largely migrant workers struggling to eek out a living in the new China. I think it could be called civil disobedience.

  13. Niko says:

    Honestly Tom you just may win – I’ve seen a friend win money on one of the scratch receipts she got from a taxi driver.

    • Tom says:

      From my experience, the chances of winning are somewhere around 1:20. It might serve the gov’t well to simply switch to a guaranteed return on any receipt. I would probably go through the hassle of collecting them more often if it was even 1%.

  14. Sam Reeves says:

    I usually win the prize of ‘politeness’, as in in ‘Thank you’. I have won one quai a few times though.

    You may or may not know this, but you can also get your fa piao in KFC and McDonalds. Sadly, they never offer anything else instead though.

  15. Lao Why? says:

    There are a lot of angles to this discussion. One of the things that bothers me about China is that it seems that everyone refrains from getting involved in situations. Much of the apparent indifference that people have to incidents on the streets is that they fear either a scam or repraisal from powerful people on whom they have blown the whistle. In most countries if a car drives the wrong way down the street, there is a uproar. Not in China.

    Our business gets called all the time by regulators seeking all kinds of free things. No one questions that even though it is absolutely illegal. No one bothers the store value card street merchants who you know make their living by selling and buying these untraceable cards that flow through to corrupt officials. The melamine scandal I believe could not have happend without the knowledge of many people who looked the other way.

    From time to time I get the feeling I am in a country where everyone is out to maximize their own personal gain and they ignore the other guy’s scam as long as it does not bother their own scam. This is a very harsh assessment and certainly not true of many hardworking Chinese. But the ethical situation that bothers Niko begs the question of where do I draw the line.

    Frankly, I don’t lose much sleep over forgoing a fa piao. But where does one take a moral stand? Although I would be the first to say that civil disobedience in the form of minor tax evasion could be justified given the immoral excess of some officials in this regime, I think that is a bit of a cop out. The bigger question is when do you have a moral obligation to call someone out when they are cheating? Riding double on a bicycle? Jay Walking? Cheating on a drivers test? Gao Kao? Telling the movie theater your child is under 11 (or whatever the children’s price age limit is)? Not everyone has the same moral standard. That, more than anything, makes me schizophrenic about China.
    Forgive the soapbox.

  16. James says:

    I don’t know if you’ll be reporting on other tax dodges you run into, but one that I have heard of from an accountant is the registering of relatives as employees, and the actual employee who works there picks up the salary for their relative who also works there, on paper, but never shows up.

    Thus the salary gets cut in half, or more, and the taxes are less.

    I asked because the accountant appologised to me for having to take out the taxes before paying me, and that aroused my curiousity. He said it is very commonly done, and because of lack of communication between work units, it doesn’t get caught. China apparently doesn’t have W2 forms like the US does.

    I wouldn’t be surprised if some people who “work” at your hospital get their salaries picked up by their spouses who actually do come into work at the hospital.

    • Tom says:

      That’s a really interesting one James, thanks for adding it.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      If I understand what you’re describing correctly, it seems that people find ways to do things that are formalized and legitimate in more well-developed tax systems. It sounds like tax saving practices like income splitting, declaring a spouse a dependant, etc., are not available.

    • James says:

      I thought I had explained it clearly.

      I mean the registering of relatives as employees in addition to the actual employee. Then the real employee picks up their own salary, and their spouses salary, and their cousin’s salary, etc – which is the actual employees’ salary split three ways to lower the taxes, or even eliminate the taxes.

      Example: Ah Q makes 2500Rmb per month, after paying 250Rmb in taxes. Then he works it out with the accountant to add his wife and cousin as employees – and he picks up three salaries:
      896.67Rmb after paying 20Rmb in taxes for his wife,
      896.67Rmb after paying 20Rmb in taxes for his cousin, and
      896.67Rmb after paying 20Rmb in taxes for him.

      Thus getting a take-home pay of:
      2690Rmb and paying taxes of 60Rmb
      – taking home 190Rmb more per month than he would have.

      And at the wife’s work, she picks up her husband’s and cousin’s salaries,
      and at the cousin’s job he picks up his two relative’s salaries….
      and so the taxes are avoided three times, in part because of bureaucracy and lack of communication between government offices, and in part because of dishonesty.

      Now is it clear enough?

      • Lorin Yochim says:

        Perfectly clear and not really necessary, because this is exactly what I took you to be saying in the first place. I’m making a fairly elementary point here, specifically that “dishonesty” is not the cause it is taken to be. These kinds of practices in the service of saving on tax payable are not necessary in more advanced tax systems. When I file my taxes, I can transfer a portion of my income, I can split or transfer income or deductions, I can pass tuition deductions on to my spouse or parents…the list goes on. You can be sure that if these opportunities were not formalized in the tax code, more of what you describe would go on. Having said that, even in these more complex systems, people work out ways to reduce taxes by many means, e.g., by paying family members (who do no work) and any number of other things that are “legal”…as long as the auditor stays away.

  17. James says:

    So the gift card thing wasn’t confusion over how the tax dodge worked? Sure seemed to be.

  18. Lao Why? says:

    Yes, I did mean gift cards.

    On a related note, perhaps the tax man is not the only one that is getting short changed by restaurants. Caixin has an article covering a change in the CSRC’s quiet policy that currently impedes restaurant chains from doing an IPO. Here is a quote from Caixin:

    “IPO applications by food service companies on the mainland stock exchanges were suspended in recent months, with rumors pointing to concerns over cash management among restaurant businesses”.

    Here is the link

  19. Lao Why? says:

    I used quiet policy as a term for when there is no written policy but participants know that the agency has taken a hard line against something. In China, this “window guidance” often comes from public speeches of senior officials that quickly become unwritten policy. Liu Minkong now retired, was famous for this at CBRC.

    • Lorin Yochim says:

      Cheers. Yes, and this is an important aspect of policy analysis in general in China…well anywhere, really, but in China one really needs to pay attention to the disposition of powerful political figures insofar as evidence of them is available.

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