FINANCE: Why China wants to undermine bitcoin – Currency and control – Opinion

Beijing’s crackdown on cryptocurrencies has captured headlines, while behind the scenes its reserve bank set up its own digital currency

Thu 8 Jul 2021 20.38 EDT – THE GUARDIAN. UK

Few would dispute that China’s recent crackdown on cryptocurrency trading and mining has contributed to the recent plunge in the value of bitcoin and other cryptos.

But while the argument rages about whether the volatility of cryptos is a sign of fundamental weakness or merely a bump along the road, the initiatives coming out of Beijing are being seen by experts as a sign of China’s attempts to incubate its own fledgling e-currency and reboot the international financial system.         

The People’s Bank of China aims to become the first major central bank to issue a central bank digital currency. While the PBOC’s counterparts in the west have taken a more cautious approach, it has held trials in several major cities including Shenzhen, Chengdu, Shanghai and Hangzhou.

The benefits of an e-currency are immense. As more and more transactions are made using a digital currency controlled centrally, the government gains more and more ability to monitor the economy and its people.

The rollout is also seen as part of Beijing’s push to weaken the power of the US dollar, and in turn that of the government in Washington. China believes that by internationalising the yuan it can reduce its dependence on the dollar-dominated global banking system, just as its Belt and Road Initiative is building an alternative network of international trade.

But another crucial motivation is the increasing alarm in Beijing at the size of the crypto industry in China, where a huge amount of cryptocurrency was being “mined” until the recent crackdown.

The threat of an unregulated alternative monetary system emerging from blockchain technology is a clear and present danger to the Communist party, according to observers.

Jim Cramer, a former hedge fund manager and CNN business expert, said the government in Beijing “believe it’s a direct threat to the regime because … it is outside their control”.

Seen from the perspective of central banks, cryptocurrencies are a threat to financial stability, argues Carsten Murawski, professor of finance at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and if digital currencies are to be developed then authorities want control.

“All central banks want to control them – the PBOC, the US Federal Reserve, the European Central Bank,” he says. “They have no interest in parallel currencies floating around. Some countries may not be too worried but in China it could be more of a concern.”

On Thursday, Fan Yifei, a deputy governor of the PBOC, said China was concerned about the threat posed by these digital currencies developed outside the regulated financial system. “We are still quite worried about this issue, so we have taken some measures,” Fan said.

The value of bitcoin shot up to a record high earlier this year of almost $65,000, having been worth less than $10,000 in the middle of last year, sparking a frenzy of interest in the cryptos as an investment to hedge against more traditional assets such as stocks and bonds. Comments by Elon Musk, the boss of Tesla, that he would not allow bitcoin to be used to buy his cars added to the volatility and it is now trading in the low $30,000s.

But that has also attracted the attention of authorities such as those in China concerned about the largely unregulated market.

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