Dentons Hong Kong | View firm profile
On 28 October 2022, Hong Kong introduced into the Legislative Council for review the Inland Revenue (Amendment) Taxation of Specified Foreign-sourced Income Bill 2022 (the Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Bill), which renders certain specified categories of foreign-sourced income subject to Hong Kong profits tax liability. With the Legislative Council’s passing on 14 December 2022, the Inland Revenue (Amendment) (Taxation on Specified Foreign-sourced Income) Ordinance 2022 (the Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Ordinance) took effect on 1 January 2023 and has brought about significant changes to Hong Kong’s long-standing territorial source basis of taxation, applying tax on specified foreign-sourced income received in Hong Kong with the stated objective of addressing “double non-taxation”.
Hong Kong’s long-standing territorial basis of taxation imposes profits tax on assessable income or profits arising in or derived from Hong Kong by persons carrying on a trade, profession or business in Hong Kong, unless specifically exempted from tax under the Inland Revenue Ordinance (IRO). Under such territorial basis of taxation, the chargeability to tax is determined on the source of income as opposed to the residence status. As such, a person may be liable to tax in Hong Kong in respect of assessable profits which are attributable to a trade or business carried on in Hong Kong and which have a Hong Kong source. Whether a trade or business is carried on in Hong Kong and whether profits are sourced in or derived from Hong Kong is a question of fact and subject to application of law and principles for which case law provides some guidance. The Hong Kong Inland Revenue Department (IRD) has clarified that the concept of carrying on business in Hong Kong is generally broader than the definition of permanent establishment in the IRO and in double tax agreements concluded by Hong Kong. Conversely, before the passing of the Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Ordinance, tax was not levied based on remittance or receipt in Hong Kong, therefore foreign-sourced income fell outside the charge to tax in Hong Kong.
In October 2021, the European Union (EU) included Hong Kong in its watchlist for tax cooperation, as the EU is concerned that corporations with no substantial economic activity in Hong Kong are not subject to tax in respect of certain offshore passive income (such as interest and royalties), hence leading to circumstances of “double non-taxation”. In response, the Hong Kong government has emphasised its support for international tax cooperation and combatting cross-border tax evasion, by amending the IRO by the end of 2022 and implementing relevant measures in 2023, with a view to having Hong Kong removed from the EU watchlist. Hong Kong has expressed the intention to continue its territorial source principle of taxation as a simple and low-tax regime with a view to maintaining the competitiveness of Hong Kong’s business environment, while the legislative amendments in particular target corporations with no substantial economic activity in Hong Kong that make use of passive income to evade tax cross-border.
The Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Ordinance has applied from 1 January 2023, amending the IRO to regard certain foreign-sourced income as arising in or derived from Hong Kong and thus chargeable to profits tax, subject however to prescribed exceptions and to relief against double taxation in respect of certain foreign-sourced income. “Received in Hong Kong” now covers or deems as received in Hong Kong: (a) sums remitted to or transmitted or brought into Hong Kong; (b) sums used to satisfy any debt incurred in respect of a trade, profession or business carried on in Hong Kong; or (c) sums used to buy movable property and the property is brought into Hong Kong.
Foreign-sourced income in the nature of interest, dividend, disposal gain from sale of equity interest in an entity or specified “intellectual property income” is now caught, subject to certain exceptions. Remarkably, specified foreign-sourced income is to be regarded as not arising from the sale of capital assets even if it so arises, applying profits tax on what may otherwise be a gain capital in nature.
Under the Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Ordinance, “MNE entity” is defined as a person that is, or acts for, an MNE group or an entity included in an MNE group; “entity” refers to a legal person (other than a natural person), or an arrangement that prepares separate financial accounts, such as a partnership and a trust; and “MNE group” means a group that includes at least one entity or permanent establishment that is not located or established in the jurisdiction of the ultimate parent entity of the group. “Group” is defined to mean: (a) a collection of entities that are related through ownership or control such that the assets, liabilities, income, expenses and cash flows of those entities: (i) are required under applicable accounting principles to be included in the consolidated financial statements of the ultimate parent entity of the collection; or (ii) are excluded from the consolidated financial statements of the ultimate parent entity solely on size or materiality grounds or on the grounds that the entities are held for sale (i.e. as would otherwise be included); or (b) a stand-alone MNE entity.
A “stand-alone MNE entity” is one located in one jurisdiction and has one or more permanent establishments in other jurisdictions, and is not part of a “group”. While that is straightforward, the complexity lies where “MNE entity” and “MNE group” as defined would cover a group or collection of entities, including any partnership or trust structures within such group, that may be subject to potential chargeability to Hong Kong profits tax on foreign-sourced income if received by a person carrying on trade, profession or business in Hong Kong and which is an entity within the group or acting for the group.
Entities or groups having presence or activities in Hong Kong should consider whether there may be potential chargeability to profits tax going forward, through a group entity carrying on a trade or business in Hong Kong and receiving or deemed as receiving specified foreign-sourced income in Hong Kong. An MNE entity that has become chargeable to profits tax in respect of any specified foreign-sourced income under the new rules must notify the Commissioner of Inland Revenue in writing of its chargeability within four months after the end of the basis period of the year of assessment during which the income is received in Hong Kong.
The Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Ordinance has applied the definition of “permanent establishment” in Hong Kong according to Schedule 17G of the IRO and “Hong Kong resident person” under section 50AAC(1) of the IRO, as are relevant for determining liability for property tax, salaries tax or profits tax in Hong Kong in the context of double taxation arrangements and transfer pricing rules. The new provisions under the Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Ordinance needs to be considered together with those pre-existing provisions.
Regulated financial entities and pre-existing concessions or exemptions
Having said that, it would be welcomed by financial institutions and financial intermediaries in Hong Kong that the amendments will not affect the income of regulated financial entities carrying on trade or business in Hong Kong and receiving foreign-sourced income derived from or incidental to the regulated financial business in Hong Kong – an insurer authorised under the Insurance Ordinance, an authorised institution under the Banking Ordinance, or an entity licensed under the Securities and Futures Ordinance (SFO) to carry on regulated activities are all out of scope for chargeability on foreign-sourced income.
The Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Ordinance also specifically excludes from the scope of “specified foreign-sourced income” any interest, dividend or disposal gain of an entity with profits chargeable at concessionary tax rate or exempt from tax under certain pre-existing concession or exemptions under the IRO, as derived from or incidental to the activity that produces the assessable profits. In particular, we would highlight this excludes a fund or its special purpose entities which are exempt from tax under Section 20AN or Section 20AO of IRO, which therefore continue to enjoy tax exemption.
Although it was originally proposed under the Inland Revenue (Amendment) Taxation of Specified Foreign-sourced Income Bill 2022 to exclude certain categories of entities from becoming subject to Hong Kong profits tax on foreign-sourced income, subject to meeting certain criteria or condition – a government investment entity, an insurance investment entity, international organisation, a pension fund entity or pension services entity, a non-profit entity or a non-profit organisation, an investment fund that is an ultimate parent entity, or a real estate investment vehicle that is an ultimate parent entity, these proposed exclusions were not incorporated into the Foreign-sourced Income Amendment Ordinance
If an MNE entity is a pure equity holding entity, exception from profits tax applies if it meets minimal specified economic substance requirements and, in the opinion of the Commissioner of Inland Revenue, has adequate human resources and premises for carrying out its relevant economic activities in Hong Kong. Otherwise, an MNE entity will need to have such number of employees in Hong Kong with the necessary qualifications to carry out specified economic activities and such total operating expenditure incurred in Hong Kong for carrying out specified economic activities, in each case as considered adequate in the Commissioner’s opinion. “Specified economic activities” refers to the making of strategic decisions in respect of the acquisition, holding or disposal of assets of the entity, managing and bearing principal risks in respect of such assets.
Separately, an MNE entity that meets the participation requirement may be exempt, where . an MNE is a Hong Kong resident person or a non-Hong Kong resident person with permanent establishment in Hong Kong and meets the specified participation requirement of having continuously held not less than 5% equity interest in the investee entity for a period of not less than 12 months immediately before accrual of the dividend or disposal gain, provided the investee entity is subject to a minimum reference tax rate of 15% and also subject to other anti-abuse provisions.
In view of Hong Kong’s position as a financial centre for asset management, investment funds and wealth management hubs, through which investment entities may be commonly established or operated, engaging in the conduct of investment activities, investment entities or structures (including partnership or trust) receiving foreign-sourced income in Hong Kong should consider the relevance and potential implications of the changes, to comply with additional chargeability to tax on foreign-sourced income or whether tax mitigation measures are available.
January 20, 2023
Author: Vivien Teu (Partner)