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China like other transition economies needs to establish a tax regime compatible with a market economy. The paper singles out the general and China-specific features by which national legislation attempts to accompany economic transformation. Based on an empirical study in two provinces this paper shows that without including local government agencies and their budgets, China’s fiscal federalism cannot be analysed. This paper argues that China’s emerging tax regime depends on the institutional design that shapes the interaction between firms (as major tax payers at the local level), local government agencies, and the national tax administration.