Japan has noticeably stepped up its bid to become an international financial center over the past year. The immediate catalyst has been Hong Kong's political troubles. Japan would like to attract international financial institutions and talent from Hong Kong, offering a more predictable and stable business environment. Yet Japan's biggest financial opportunity lies not in replacing Hong Kong, but rather in developing itself as Asia's premier cryptocurrency hub. Japan has a big head start over its competitors in this area. With perseverance, it can emerge ahead of both Singapore and Hong Kong.
Japan may be a cashless payments laggard, but it still plans to launch a central bank digital currency (CBDC). Tokyo's newfound interest in a digital yen derives at least in part from a desire to stay competitive with China. Beijing's launch of DCEP pilots this year showed that it was leaps and bounds ahead of other countries in the CBDC department. At the same time, a CBDC offers Japan a chance to accelerate the overall digitization of its financial system. Cash still accounts for about 73% of all transactions in Japan.
Cambodia has become the first country in Southeast Asia to launch a blockchain-based payment platform backed by its central bank. The Cambodian government is calling the platform, known as Project Bakong, a "retail central bank digital currency." Co-developed with the Japanese fintech firm Soramitsu, Bakong enables transactions in both Cambodian riel (KHR) and US dollars and works with Cambodia's existing payment systems. The Bakong app allows users with a Cambodian phone number and bank account to set up a digital wallet in either Riel or US dollars, transfer between accounts and make payments with a phone number or QR code.
U.S. regulators have always been ambivalent about blockchain technology and cryptocurrency. That translates to a lack of regulatory clarity for firms operating in the space. In the U.S., crypto could be a currency, property, commodity or security, depending which regulatory authority you ask. But for now, it remains in limbo. Frustrated with this situation, San Francisco-based Ripple Labs is considering packing its bags and relocating to Japan or Singapore, countries which have taken a more proactive approach to regulating cryptocurrency than the United States.
Facebook's virtual currency initiative is getting a much needed boost with the addition of Singapore's sovereign wealth fund Temasek to the Libra Association. Temasek is the first member based in Asia and brings the city-state's fintech prowess to the table. Over the past decade, Singapore has emerged as Asia's preeminent fintech hub. Its government has approached fintech as an enabler of a wider variety of financial services rather than a mere disruptor of the status quo. If Libra is going to succeed, it will need to move in that direction.
South Korea is eager to introduce more digital applications into its financial system, but unsure how far it wants to go with digital currency. That goes for not just crypto, but central bank digital currency as well. For now, payments is one fintech segment in which South Korean tech giants are poised to launch new applications.
Here comes China's blockchain bandwagon, ready or not. The novel coronavirus may have slowed the Chinese economy down, but now that life is slowly returning to normal, blockchain hype is back. China currently has about 35,000 blockchain companies, according to information portal Tianyacha. In Guangdong Province alone, there are 20,000 of them. Even amidst the coronavirus pandemic, more than 2,000 new blockchain companies were formed between January and March, according to Forkast News.
Unsurprisingly, most of these firms are not focused on distributed ledger technology. Research by Forkast shows that just over 500 of them have a state-issued blockchain service filing number. Without one of those, a company is not a certified blockchain provider in China. China's 01 Think Tank found that about 1,000 of 30,000 blockchain firms in China are engaged in business that uses distributed ledger technology.
Japan stealthily has become among the world's most pro-crypto countries. Amidst the boom and gloom that have defined the crypto space, Tokyo has avoided irrational exuberance or draconian restrictions on the use and trade of virtual currency. Instead, it has quietly incorporated digital currency into its existing financial system, linking it to the wider push to boost cashless payments. In Asia, no nation has been more consistent in its crypto approach. The next logical step would be to create a central bank digital currency. Japanese officials, however, have yet to commit to a CBDC. Pressure is mounting though, especially as China pushes ahead with its sovereign digital currency.
North Korea's growing nuclear program has long been a point of contention between the U.S. and China. Beijing prefers to handle its mercurial neighbor with kid gloves while Washington favors a tougher approach, namely economic sanctions. To evade sanctions in the digital age, Pyongyang has upped its hacking game. Both banks and cryptocurrency exchanges are victims. Digital currency offers North Korea a way to raise funds and do business outside the US dollar led global financial system. North Korea stole more than US$2 billion from both traditional financial institutions and crypto exchanges - including South Korea's Bitthumb - the United Nations said in an Aug. 2019 report.
The Trump administration has not shown much enthusiasm for a sovereign digital currency so far. With China's advances in the area, however, Washington's stance could be set to change. In early February, a member of the United States Federal Reserve Bank board of governors said the Fed is researching and experimenting with distributed ledger technologies and their virtual-currency applications. Among the applications being explored is a central bank digital currency (CBDC).
Lael Brainard, who chairs multiple Fed committees, made the remarks at a speech during an event on payments held at Stanford University. Brainard noted that 80% of central banks globally are researching CBDCs. However, she stopped well short of endorsing a full-throated campaign to create a digital dollar, devoting considerable attention to the challenges and risks posed by digital fiat currencies.
Much like its anti-corruption campaign, China's crypto crackdown is relentless. Beijing views decentralized digital currency as a conduit for money laundering and capital flight. In contrast, Beijing sees crypto's underlying blockchain technology as useful. Blockchain can help China boost its tech prowess, improve supply-chain integrity and surmount bottlenecks across many industries, particularly financial services.
It can be hard to cut through the hype surrounding Facebook's cryptocurrency project and evaluate it objectively. Facebook champions the Libra stablecoin as a powerful vehicle for financial inclusion which would be easily accessible to its many users in developing countries without a bank account. To advance the Libra project, Facebook chief executive Mark Zuckerberg has been playing up its nationalist credentials. If U.S. regulators fail to greenlight Libra, then Washington will cede digital currency ground to Beijing, he says.
"China is moving quickly to launch a similar idea in the coming months," Zuckerberg told the House Financial Services Committee in October. "If America doesn't innovate, our financial leadership is not guaranteed."
Misunderstanding of China's blockchain aspirations remain widespread. Virtual-currency enthusiasts once thought the Middle Kingdom would be crypto central. They were wrong: China doesn't want to be a hub for all things crypto, but it does want to harness the underlying blockchain technology to boost its technological prowess, improve the integrity of supply chains and overcome bottlenecks across many industries - notably the financial services sector.
It was with those goals in mind that Chinese President Xi Jinping recently called for a larger role for blockchain in China's economic development. According to state-run Xinhua, Xi urged "deep integration of blockchain with the real economy," which he said could help SMEs get better access to credit as well as strengthen risk management in banking and the supervision of government agencies. He further said that China has a "solid blockchain foundation" and called for the nation to accelerate the development of blockchain technology and strengthen related basic research.
Japan's biggest brokerages are moving to tap opportunities in the forthcoming security tokens market. From April 2020, Japan will permit fundraising through security token offerings, which have already been launched in the U.S., Singapore and Taiwan.
Australia Post is the first industry service provider to join the Australian government’s digital identity program and the second organization to be accredited under the Trusted Digital Identity Framework (TDIF) after the Australian Taxation Office. Alongside TDIF is the Australian government’s GovPass program. It allows individuals to verify their digital identity, which then can be used to access a range of government services. If success, the government's digital identity programs may be expanded to the financial services sector in the future.
The Japanese government is leading a global effort to develop an international cryptocurrency payment network similar to the SWIFT system used by banks, according to a recent Reuters report. Citing an anonymous source, the report said that the purpose of the crypto payment network would be to combat money laundering. No details have yet emerged about how the network would function, but it was reportedly approved by the Financial Action Task Force (FATF) in June.
Facebook's plans to launch its cryptocurrency Libra in the first half of 2020 have prompted a new round of discussions in China about the merits of virtual currency. If Libra, which is aimed at the enormous global market of 2.38 billion Facebook users (not including China, where Facebook is blocked), were to succeed and China had nothing comparable, it could be left behind in the next wave of digital financial innovation.At the same time, Beijing worries that Libra will further entrench the hegemony of the U.S. dollar. “If the digital currency is closely associated with the U.S. dollar, it could create a scenario under which sovereign currencies would coexist with US dollar-centric digital currencies,” Wang Hexin, research chief of the People's Bank of China, was quoted as saying by The South China Morning Post in a July report.
With the launch of its cryptocurrency Libra, Facebook is diving headfirst into digital banking. The U.S. social-media giant can draw on its massive global network of 2.3 billion users as it forays into finance. Yet Facebook will not be introducing Libra to China, which has the world's largest number of internet users. China blocked Facebook a decade ago and has moved to cripple crypto to control systemic financial risk and discourage capital flight. If Libra is a success, being excluded from it could have major ramifications for China's fintech development. At the very least, Beijing's own fintech system would be further isolated from the rest of the world.
The government of Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi is not known as a friend of the crypto community. With his recent reelection, virtual currency's future in India, the world's second most populous country and its soon-to-be No. 3 consumer market after the U.S. and China, looks uncertain at best. At worst, India could flat out crypto and criminalize its possession and use.
China has a complicated relationship with blockchain technology. Until the fall of 2017, China was the largest market for Bitcoin. But Beijing ultimately couldn't tolerate the decentralized nature of virtual currency and its utility in allowing Chinese citizens to evade capital controls, or in some cases, launder money. The ensuing crypto crackdown may turn out to be much like President Xi Jinping's anti-corruption campaign: never-ending.It's now clear that China will not allow decentralized digital currency in its financial system.
Less than two years ago, China was the world's virtual-currency capital by trading volume. On the eve of the great crypto crackdown in September 2017, China accounted for 90% of the world's Bitcoin trading. Miners capitalized on cheap electricity rates in far-flung provinces to churn out as many digital coins as their power supplies permitted. Crypto bulls lauded Beijing's apparent embrace of distributed ledger technology and decentralization.
As it turns out, the celebration was premature. In a move to control what it perceives as systemic financial risk, Beijing has been gradually squeezing the life out of the China crypto market. The Chinese government has banned ICOs and the use of fiat currency in virtual-currency purchases as well as blocked related websites. Recently, it began working to eliminate crypto mining. At the same time, the WeChat super app banned crypto trading effective May 31.
The National Bank of Cambodia will become one of the first banks in the world to integrate blockchain technology into its national payments system in the second half of the year. The Cambodian government aims to use distributed ledger technology to strengthen banking system efficiency and boost financial inclusion in what is still one of Asean's poorest countries.
China may be the only country in the world able to stamp out cryptocurrency while repurposing its underlying blockchain technology. Decentralization becomes centralized under this scenario, as private enterprises implement blockchain solutions in line with central government directives. It's a bit like the "socialist market economy." The key to success here is acceptance of seemingly contradictory principles, one of Beijing's specialties.
Paradoxes abound in the Chinese economy, as the long arm of the state regularly collides with resilient entrepreneurial activity. Nowhere is this more apparent than the fintech segment, where Beijing is repurposing technology designed to facilitate freewheeling financial activity as an instrument of state control. We would like to ask enigmatic Bitcoin founder Satoshi Nakamoto to comment - if only we knew how to get a hold of him.
The crypto community is aghast at Beijing's move to regulate blockchain, which will be effective February 15. "Blockchain under threat in China," proclaimed Coingape in January 14. report. The Invest in Blockchain site said that "the Chinese blockchain industry is about to come under heavy scrutiny" in a Jan. 13 article.
The last eighteen months have been a bumpy road for initial coin offerings (ICO’s). Last year we reported that China had banned them completely citing concerns over large scale fraud and regulatory bodies across the world have begun to take a tougher stance on the practice. Yet, despite these setbacks, $5 billion dollars was raised by ICOs in 2017, with that figure being surpassed in the first three months of 2018 alone. Nonetheless, in a response to the negativity around ICO’s, Security Token offering (STO) have emerged as an alternative form of blockchain based funding. We believe that the subtle differences in both offerings may be critical in beginning a new period of reconciliation and agreement between regulators and technology companies seeking finance under the blockchain.
On May 9th, a mini-app on WeChat called ‘Little Agreement’ showed up, providing an interface to create agreements on the Ethereum blockchain for Wechat Users. A few hours later, the mini-app was removed.
Cryptocurrency control in China seems to be getting stronger since the ban on September 4th, 2017. In a bid to further limit the use of crypto in China, the National Committee of Experts on Internet Financial Security Technology (IFCERT) is now monitoring 56 platforms that offer over the counter (OTC) cryptocurrency transactions.
The (Qingdao) Blockchain Research Company released a set of ratings for various blockchain projects on May 17th, 2018. The company is related to China Center for Information Industry Development (CCID), led by Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT), part of the national government, but it would be wrong to read that this is any sort of acceptance of crypto by the Chinese government.
Blockchain technology has become one of the most popular topics in China today as it moves beyond conversations in the tech industry to normal individuals in their everyday lives. It is easy to catch a conversation about ideas of blockchain at a restaurant, on a bus, or in a club from people excited about the investment opportunities of blockchain projects, or even just blockchain ideas.
Blockchain technology's momentum has grown significantly in China and it’s clear that this technology is here to stay. Since Chinese New Year, frequent good news has accelerated this trend – The People’s Daily published a whole page talking about how to develop this technology, and it’s been a hot topic even in the ongoing “two sessions” National Party Congress.
The top three tech giants in China - Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent, previously did not talk much about their blockchain development, but with a much more receptive public and regulatory environment, they have revealed a bit more about where they have been focused.
China is on the verge of creating another uninviting barrier for the cryptocurrency market, however nothing has been set in stone yet. Xinhua, one of the main news outlets in China, released another elusive yet pressing statement on February 5, 2018 laying out some of the government's plans to further hinder Chinese citizens from accessing international cryptocurrency exchanges and ICOs.
Bitcoin has grown rapidly in 2017 and its grabbed the attention of industry leaders and CEO’s, including Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg. In January, Zuckerberg released a comment that indicated that Facebook will be looking to research and potentially adapt Blockchain technology.
XRP has become one of the most hyped cryptocurrencies, outperforming both Bitcoin and Ethereum last year. Much of the hype comes from XRP’s connection to its creator company Ripple Labs, but this link may not be as useful as many hope.