Digital Currency

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China’s e-commerce giant JD.com starts paying some staff in digital yuan

China’s plan to introduce its digital currency is getting a lot of help from its tech conglomerates. JD.com, a major Chinese online retailer that competes with Alibaba, said Monday that it has started paying some staff in digital yuan, the virtual version of the country’s physical currency.

China has been busy experimenting with digital currency over the past few months. In October, Shenzhen, a southern city known for its progressive economic policies, doled out 10 million yuan worth of digital currency to 500,000 residents, who could then use the money to shop at certain online and offline retailers.

Several other large Chinese cities have followed Shenzhen’s suit. The residents in these regions has to apply through selected banks to start receiving and paying by digital yuan.

The electronic yuan initiative is a collective effort involving China’s regulators, commercial banks and technology solution providers. At first glance, the scheme still mimics how physical yuan is circulating at the moment; under the direction of the central bank, the six major commercial banks in China, including ICBC, distribute the digital yuan to smaller banks and a web of tech solution providers, who could help bring more use cases to the new electronic money.

For example, JD.com partnered up with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China (ICBC) to deposit the digital income. The online retailer has become one of the first organizations in China to pay wages in electronic yuan; in August, some government workers in the eastern city of Suzhou also began getting paid in the digital money.

Across the board, China’s major tech companies have actively participated in the buildout of the digital yuan ecosystem, which will help the central government better track money flows.

Aside from JD.com, video streaming platform Bilibili, on-demand services provider Meituan and ride-hailing app Didi have also begun accepting digital yuan for user purchases. Gaming and social networking giant Tencent became one of the “digital yuan operators” and will take part in the design, R&D and operational work of the electronic money. Jack Ma’s Ant Group, which is undergoing a major overhaul following a stalled IPO, has also joined hands with the central bank to work on building out the infrastructure to move money digitally. Huawei, the telecom equipment titan, debutted a wallet on one of its smartphone models that allows users to spend digital yuan instantaneously even if the device is offline.

As contactless menu ordering becomes the norm amid COVID, China pushes back

Digital ordering and paying at restaurants was already gaining much ground in China before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. The tap-to-order method on a smartphone is part of the greater development in China where cash and physical documentation is increasingly being phased out. Many restaurants across large cities go as far as making digital menus mandatory, cutting staff costs.

Meanwhile, there has been pushback from the public and the authorities over aggressive digitization. An article published this week by People’s Daily, an official paper of the Chinese Communist Party, was titled: “Scan-to-order shouldn’t be the only option.”

Aside from harming consumers’ freedom of choice and removing the human interaction that diners might appreciate, mandatory smartphone use also raises concerns over data privacy. Ordering on a phone often requires access to a person’s profile on WeChat, Alipay, Meituan or other internet platforms enabling restaurants’ digital services. With that trove of data, businesses will go on to span users with ads.

“These approaches harm consumers’ data protection rights,” the People’s Daily quotes a senior personnel at the consumer rights unit of China Law Society, China’s official organization of legal academic professionals, as saying.

China has similarly targeted the ubiquity of cashless payments. In 2018, China’s central bank called rejecting cash as a form of payment “illegal” and “unfair” to those not accustomed to electronic payments, such as senior citizens.

The elderly also face a dilemma as digital health codes, which are normally generated by tracking people’s movement history using location data from SIM cards, becomes a norm amid the pandemic. Without a smartphone-enabled health pass, senior citizens could be turned away by bus drivers, subway station guards, restaurant staff and gatekeepers at other public venues.

To bridge the digital divide, the southern province of Guangdong recently began allowing citizens to check their health status by tapping their physical ID cards on designated scanners.

Cashless payment is an irreversible trend though. Between 2015 and 2020, the digital payments penetration rate amongst China’s mobile internet users went from less than 60% to over 85%, according to official data. Moreover, the government is hastening the pace to roll out digital yuan, which, unlike third-party payments methods, is issued and managed by the central bank and serves as the statutory, digital version of China’s physical currency.

China’s digital yuan tests leap forward in Shenzhen

Shenzhen, known for its maker community and manufacturing resources, is taking the lead in trialing China’s digital yuan.

Last week, the city issued 10 million yuan worth of digital currency to 50,000 randomly selected residents. The government doled out the money through mobile “red envelopes,” a tool designed to digitize the custom of gifting money in red packets and first popularized by WeChat’s e-wallet.

The digital yuan is not to be mistaken as a form of cryptocurrency. Rather, it is issued and managed by the central bank, serving as the statutory, digital version of China’s physical currency and giving Beijing a better grasp of its currency circulation. It’s meant to supplement, not replace, third-party payments apps like WeChat Pay and Alipay in a country where cash is dying out.

For example, the central government may in the future issue subsidies to local offices by sending digital yuan, which can help tackle issues like corruption.

Shenzhen is one of the four Chinese cities to begin internal testing of the digital yuan, announced a government notice in August without going into the specifics. The latest distribution to consumers is seen as the country’s first large-scale, public test of the centrally issued virtual currency.

Nearly 2 million individuals in Shenzhen signed up for the lottery, according to a post from the local government. Winners could redeem the 200 yuan red envelope within the official digital yuan app and spend the virtual money at over 3,000 retail outlets in the city.

As its next step, Shenzhen will launch a (vaguely defined) “fintech innovation platform” through its official digital currency institute, said a new central government document detailing the city’s five-year development measures, including attracting more foreign investment in cutting-edge technologies. The city will also play a key role in furthering the digital yuan’s research and development, application and international collaboration.

In April, the city’s digital currency vehicle launched a wave of recruiting for technical positions like mobile app architects and Android developers.

Shenzhen was established in 1980 as China’s first special economic zones and is now home to tech behemoths like Tencent, Huawei and DJI and innovation hubs like HAX and Trouble Maker. President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit the city this week to commemorate the city’s 40th anniversary.

While the central bank provides logic and infrastructure undergirding the digital yuan, there’s much room for commercial banks and private firms to innovate on the application level. Both ride-hailing platform Didi and JD’s fintech arm have recently unveiled steps to help accelerate the digital yuan’s real-life implementation.

Bitcoin hits record high, worth more than ounce of gold for first time

Bitcoin reached a new high at $1,271 per bitcoin yesterday, and for the first time surpassed the price of gold per ounce, which was worth $1,235 by the end of last night. A year ago, one bitcoin was valued at $421, so it’s nearly tripled in 12 months, while gold’s price was about the same last year as it is today.

One reason for the virtual currency’s surge, according to NBC News:

One factor that may have led to bitcoin’s price surge is an upcoming decision by the Securities and Exchange Commission on whether to approve a bitcoin exchange-traded fund (ETF) proposed by venture capitalist twins Tyler and Cameron Winklevoss four years ago.

The decision, which is expected by March 11, would mark the first bitcoin ETF in the U.S. If approved, the ETF would have to buy an estimated $300 million worth of Bitcoin, potentially doubling the value of the currency.

Proponents of bitcoin, like Kelly, argue that the digital currency may be edging out gold as an alternative asset.

And another reason for the record high, according to Bloomberg:

The latest surge in bitcoin’s value has been attributed to tighter currency restrictions in countries such as China, India and Venezuela, as well as speculation about prospects under the Trump administration.

But Bloomberg reminds us that the last time bitcoin peaked in 2013 at $1,137, it then “fell 53 percent in less than a month.”

Photo by BTC Keychain

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