Remember when more crypto was traded in China than any other country in the world? Though it was less than five years ago, it seems like a lifetime ago. In 2021, China accelerated a long-running crackdown on decentralized virtual currencies, banning just about everything crypto-related but possession. While some diehard crypto enthusiasts in China may carry on, Beijing has made crypto trading more trouble than it is worth for most Chinese. With crypto out of the way, Beijing can now concentrate on developing its own blockchain ecosystem.
Why ban crypto when you can discourage its use by taxing it heavily? That seems to be at least part of the rationale behind India’s plan to forego a ban on decentralized virtual currencies but tax income from digital assets at a flat 30% rate with no deductions or exemptions. At the same time, India plans to go ahead with a digital rupee by early 2023.
Somewhere in between the El Salvador and China approaches to crypto is a middle road, neither a full-throated embrace nor a strict ban. Call it crypto agnostic. Thailand appears to be taking that road, allowing the digital assets business to grow organically, while gradually implementing regulations as needed. For Thai regulators, the priority is not developing a regional hub for decentralized virtual currencies – that is more of a Singapore project and something Japan has considered – but simply ensuring they are used in a manner beneficial for the country’s economy and overall society.
Earlier this week the People’s Bank of China e-CNY digital wallet showed up on Android and Apple App stores in China in what appears to be the government’s next push to get people to use the somewhat underused digital currency. Previously, the PBOC's e-CNY digital wallet app was only available as a ‘side-loaded’ app meaning that it had to be loaded manually by the user rather than installed through one of the official stores. This is a relatively trivial task on an Android phone where you just click on a .APK file, but somewhat more difficult in the Apple ecosystem.
2021 has been a pathbreaking year for decentralized digital currencies. They have made more headway into the mainstream financial system than in any previous year. The Indian government has been watching these developments closely and has quietly walked back its erstwhile anti-crypto stance. A blanket ban of crypto no longer makes sense for India, as it would be both detrimental to financial inclusion and cashless payments objectives, while offering questionable benefits for combating money laundering and terrorism financing.
Taiwan’s financial sector is known for its conservatism, so it is no surprise that the island has not embraced cryptocurrency. Yet, to their credit, nor have Taiwan’s regulators taken an overly harsh approach to decentralized digital currencies. Unfortunately, the lack of regulatory clarity that initially allowed crypto to gain a foothold in Taiwan is not sufficient for the island to become a hub for the industry.
Australia may be reaching its crypto inflection point. Canberra has never repudiated crypto but nor has it embraced decentralized virtual currencies. However, as other countries in the Asia-Pacific region like Singapore and Japan step up their efforts to become crypto hubs, Australia is realizing that decentralized digital currencies offer it an opportunity as well. A report published by Australia’s Senate in late October recommends that the country alter its laws to make them more amicable to crypto.
One after another, Asia’s major economies are developing their crypto policies. Singapore and Japan have decided to embrace decentralized digital currencies, albeit in a step-by-step manner. South Korea is less sanguine, although it is stopping well short of China’s near-blanket ban. As for India, it once seemed to be moving in the direction of a crypto ban, but that seems less feasible by the day given the industry’s burgeoning expansion and the potential benefits of that growth for the overall Indian economy.
Southeast Asia is fast warming to central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) with Laos the latest country in the region to signal its intention to develop one. What makes Laos’s situation unique is that the same Japanese company that developed Cambodia’s retail CBDC, Project Bakong, will be involved in exploring the possibility for a digital kip (the Laotian currency).
Japan is one of the top contenders for the Asia crypto crown. The only other jurisdiction that can challenge it is Singapore. Hong Kong is no longer in the running given the city's close links with mainland China and Beijing's tough approach to decentralized digital currencies. But before Japan can solidify its status as an Asian crypto hub, it first needs to figure out how to better regulate crypto to protect investors and safeguard against malfeasance.
Australia has yet to make up its mind about crypto. On the one hand, it allows crypto exchanges. It has dozens of them. Finder estimated that 17% of Australians own cryptocurrency in a June survey. There are no regulations banning the holding or trading of cryptocurrencies. However, Australia’s incumbent financial institutions are ambivalent about decentralized digital currencies and generally stay away from them.
It seems that just about every major Asian economy is warming to the idea of a CBDC now, and India is no exception. Shaktikanta Das, governor of the Reserve Bank of India (RBI), said recently New Delhi may be ready for digital rupee trials by year-end.
Southeast Asia is home to some of the world’s fastest growing economies and is rapidly adopting digital financial technology, including blockchain-based solutions. Thus, it is only natural that central banks in the region are starting to think about a possible role for digital fiat currencies. The first country to make the jump to a CBDC is Cambodia, and it will definitely not be the last.
Try as it might, the cryptocurrency industry has not yet been able to shake its reputation for being not quite above board. The rebellious, underground side of crypto has won it many devoted fans – just not usually among financial regulators. But what if crypto – like many segments of Asia’s fintech industry – found a home in Singapore?
The crypto party may be over in South Korea, where the government is less than ecstatic about the widespread use of decentralized virtual currency in its economy. Unlike Japan, a crypto pioneer that has always been tolerant of decentralized digital currency, South Korea sees it as somewhere in between an annoyance and systemic financial risk. Seoul is now moving to curtail crypto’s influence in the country through strict regulation and higher taxation.
Bitcoin mining was one of the last vestiges of China’s experimentation with decentralized virtual currency. Until recently, China was the world’s bitcoin mining center. For the crypto faithful (and the agnostics who profited from mining), it was great while it lasted. But now regulators have decided mining in China should go the way of trading. Several weeks ago Kapronasia wrote that the crackdown was just warming up. Sure enough, provincial authorities are turning up the heat. What began in Inner Mongolia – it shut down 35 mining firms between January and April – has spread to Xinjiang, Qinghai and Yunnan.
It was only a matter of time before bitcoin mining landed in China’s crosshairs. Beijing identified decentralized digital currency as a systemic financial risk in 2017 – for its use in skirting capital controls and links to money laundering - and promptly hobbled key parts of the crypto ecosystem, shutting down all exchanges and banning initial coin offerings. Mining does not pose the same immediate risks to the Chinese financial system, but its enormous power usage could crimp Beijing’s efforts to curb its carbon emissions – a major central government policy objective. With that in mind, the prospects for bitcoin miners in China look dim indeed.
The hype about China's digital yuan can obscure the reality, especially in the cross-border space. The most adamant supporters of China’s CBDC argue that it poses a challenge to the US dollar’s role as the world’s dominant international currency because, well, it is digital, has a technological edge and thus will perhaps redefine global payments rails. This argument exaggerates the benefits of digitization while overlooking the fundamentals of the dollar's paramountcy.
China is leading the world in CBDC development, prompting speculation that DCEP (digital currency, electronic payment) is on its way to becoming the digital equivalent of the U.S. dollar. The reality is more nuanced. To be sure, China's digital fiat currency is at a more advanced stage than any other major country's CBDC, and China has many potential applications for it domestically. When it comes to cross-border use, however, many questions remain about the digital yuan.
To date, South Korea has been less enthusiastic about launching a central bank digital currency (CBDC) than China or Japan. Beijing leads the world in CBDC development while Tokyo sees a CBDC as a necessity to stay competitive with its giant neighbor. Yet Seoul is now coming around to the need for a digital fiat currency, even if one of the government's purposes in developing one is to reduce the use of crypto in its economy.
Korea's K bank may have finally found the secret sauce. Long a laggard among Korean fintechs, the country's first digital lender is now riding the bitcoin boom thanks to a tie-up with the crypto exchange Upbit. Under a deal K bank and Upbit reached in June 2020, retail investors who want to trade crypto with Upbit must do so through the digital lender. Since last March, Korea has required exchanges to work with lenders like K Bank to ensure the use of valid, real-name accounts for trading. Eager to capitalize on the bitcoin boom, retail customers are signing up at K bank in droves.
The crypto faithful are crying foul as India once again mulls banning decentralized virtual currency. They say pulling the plug on crypto now would be like banning the internet in the 1990s - a reactionary move that would have grim repercussions for India's economy. To be sure, some Indian investors would lose out if they could no longer trade cryptocurrencies. They currently hold about US$1 billion worth. The fintech startup ecosystem might be hurt. But it is hard to imagine the broader Indian economy suffering.
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."