Has China really changed its tune on crypto?

I am of course talking about China’s recent turnaround regarding cryptocurrencies. The change of tone coming from Beijing and the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), with regard to cryptocurrencies makes you pause to think, ‘What’s all this about?’

China’s central bank is now referring to bitcoin as an ‘alternative investment’, signalling something is afoot in the country that cracked down on digital assets four years ago.

Of course it is a welcome shift in perspective from the Chinese, and many are describing it as ‘progressive’. At the same time, they are closely monitoring the PBoC for signs of forthcoming regulatory changes in relation to the crypto sector.

During a panel hosted by CNBC at the Boao Forum for Asia on Sunday,

Li Bo, deputy governor of the PBOC, said, “We regard Bitcoin and stablecoin as crypto assets … These are investment alternatives.” He went on to say, “They are not currency per se. And so the main role we see for crypto assets going forward, the main role is investment alternative.” This indicates an unwillingness to see bitcoin and other similar tokens, such as Litecoin, as a means of payment, but at least it is a move towards a broader acceptance of cryptocurrencies in China.

As CNBC points out, China was once one of the world’s biggest buyers of bitcoin, before banning ICOs in 2017 and closing down crypto exchanges in the same year, both moves prompted by a perceived financial instability in the digital asset sector.

Li said, in explaining more about what he meant by calling them investment alternatives: “Many countries, including China, are still looking into it and thinking about what kind of regulatory requirements. Maybe minimal, but we need to have some kind of regulatory requirement to prevent … the speculation of such assets to create any serious financial stability risks.”

Flex Yang, CEO and founder of Babel Finance, called the comments “progressive”, while Vijay Ayyar, head of business development at cryptocurrency exchange Luno said, “I think it is quite significant and is definitely different to their previous statements or positions on public cryptocurrencies.”

When asked about what he thought had changed China’s thinking following the PBoC announcement, Ayyar said, “Governments are realizing that it is a viable and established, yet growing, asset class and need to regulate it. China regulating crypto would be another massive boost to the industry in China and globally.”

At the moment, China is still trialling its digital yuan, which will eventually replace the cash and coins in circulation, and there is a rumour that the country may wish to trial with foreign visitors to the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.

As with everything to do with China and finance – watch this space!

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