Beijing is at war with bitcoin. The digital currency has become so popular with speculators that the Chinese government seems intent on stopping its rise.
Although only one official bitcoin ruling has been issued, which approves some trading by individuals but bans local financial institutions from dealing in it, the government has been working behind the scenes to undermine the industry before it becomes too big to handle.
“This is the winter of bitcoin in China,” said one local industry professional who has already felt the effects of government attempts to curtail the currency's growth and who wished to remain anonymous due to current sensitivities around the issue. “It could last a few months or maybe a few years but bitcoin is here to stay; it’s not going away.”
China’s bitcoin fuss started in December when regulators said they were banning local financial institutions from using bitcoin, causing the value of the virtual commodity to halve during the last few weeks of 2013. Despite a brief rally in January, the bitcoin slump has continued (prices diverge across multiple different exchanges but the peak value was roughly $1,100 compared with less than $500 today).
Some industry participants were happy the Chinese government stopped short of banning bitcoin altogether and still allowed individuals to buy and sell them freely. “That’s a win for us,” Dave Chapman, co-founder and chief operating officer of Hong Kong-based bitcoin exchange ANX, said in March.
But then the government disallowed third-party payment companies from servicing payments between the exchanges and perceptions shifted again last week when state-owned China Merchants Bank said it would no longer allow customers to transfer money to the bitcoin exchange BTC China.
There are no explicit rules requiring financial institutions to impose such a ban but if other banks were to follow suit then bitcoin exchanges would be forced into cash-only mode — a significant impediment to doing business.
“We’re stuck between a rock and a hard place as an industry in terms of what the government will allow and will not allow,” said the industry source who declined to be named. "The rules don't have to be logical or internally consistent. In other countries there is recourse but in this case there's not much people can do given the government structure."
Loss of control
The government has four main concerns about bitcoin, according to industry insiders: money laundering, capital controls, its lack of fundamental value and the wild swings in price.
However, such concerns are not serious enough to warrant prohibition. The real issue is the lack of central control.
After all, officials in Beijing could easily impose know-your-customer and anti-money laundering regulations on the bitcoin exchanges, as well as controls on foreign-currency transactions, if they wanted to. Indeed, ANX in Hong Kong already uses banking-style identity checks to approve its customers.
The problem for China is that it already struggles to enforce such controls in the non-virtual economy — illegal renminbi flows are plentiful even without bitcoin. So rather than deal with the additional headache of an underground economy running on a decentralised digital currency, however unlikely that might be, China would like to "cut bitcoin off at the knees before its popularity gets too big to contain", according to the source.
That is not a death knell for bitcoin but certainly makes life very difficult for Chinese bitcoin companies.
“People are much more scared about buying and investing and holding on to bitcoins now,” the source said. “But the value is still there. Compared to a year ago, bitcoin is still five or six times the price and exposure is now widespread in both the media and the public's mind. I'm still hopeful.”
So it now seems more likely that the main bitcoin action will happen outside China. In the US, retailers such as Zynga, Overstock and TigerDirect have recently started to accept bitcoin and more are joining them. CoinMap, a website that claims to map retail outlets around the world that accept bitcoin and litecoin payments, lists more than 150 stores in Asia — and close to 4,000 worldwide.
The next step, which ANX’s Chapman is confident will happen this year, is for a major online player such as Amazon or Google to start accepting them.
“This would naturally result in much wider appreciation of bitcoin as a payment technology — and it would most certainly increase the demand for bitcoins,” he predicted.