China is eager to explore digital ledger technology—as long as you don’t say “Crypto.” The People’s Bank of China has officially launched testing of a finance blockchain project for three currency areas, The Asia Times reported earlier today.
The Bay Area Trade Finance Blockchain Project is designed to build an “open financial and trade ecosystem” for trades and transactions between Hong Kong, Macau and the mainland’s Guangdong province, the Times reports. It will also allow regulators to monitor financial activities in real time.
The Bay Area refers to the heavily export-intensive areas along the Pearl River Delta. Although part of China, Hong Kong and Macau are separately administered from the mainland, with different currencies, customs policies and banking regulations.
The pilot will link several state and private financial institutions, including China Construction Bank, China Merchants Bank, Ping An Bank, and Standard Chartered Bank.
According to the Asia Times, local analysts believe that the cross-border blockchain project will contribute to “formation of a market trust mechanism, solving financing difficulties of SMEs (small-to-medium enterprises), assisting banks to conduct business authenticity audits, business cost reductions and improved efficiency.”
The experimental blockchain platform was organized by the Digital Currency Research Initiative, a body of the central bank with the mission of exploring blockchain applications for fintech and business. The initiative has recently opened fintech lab in Shenzhen and Nanjing, two key cities for China’s fintech industry.
Such trials indicate an increased interest in blockchain developments in the Middle Kingdom. The Hong Kong Monetary Authority, which supervises financial affairs in the former British colony, has earlier announced plans to launch its own blockchain project sometime this month, according to the South China Morning Post.
Banks will serve as nodes for the private chain, which would be used to verify and notarize financial documents, orders, and invoices in what remains a heavily paper-intensive industry.
How Long Till China Coin?
But there may be more to this story than meets the eye. The Beijing-based DCRI has stepped up patent applications for applications like digital currency wallets and login systems, further feeding rumors of a forceful entry into the space. Although still coy on the details, state media have reported that China may soon follow Iran and Venezuela in issuing a state-backed digital currency.
This could explain why the central government has clamped down on cryptocurrencies, to the extent that they can no longer be traded on Alipay or even mentioned in social media. China’s infamous censorship is also a form of protectionism—for example, shutting down Google and Facebook to nurture homegrown alternatives like Baidu and Renren.
So Beijing’s clampdown on censorship might not be the harsh crackdown some analysts have diagnosed, so much as a way of preventing some Bitcoin or Ripple from stealing a march. Instead of trying to keep cryptocurrencies out of the market, the People’s Bank might be hoping to keep that market to itself.
The author is invested in digital currencies.