Will 2022 be the year that CBDCs – central bank digital currencies – finally emerge from concept to solution? One of the countries that has been most aggressive in developing these digital assets – China – announced this week that it has launched its digital yuan wallet in both the Android and iOS app stores. The launch comes after more than seven years of development and extensive field testing across the country. This includes a pilot project that involved using the digital yuan (or e-CNY, as it is also known) for transactions worth more than $5 billion as of June of 2021. The Chinese central bank claims that, to date, its digital yuan has been used in more than 70 million payments across 1.3+ million scenarios.
What does this suggest for the digital yuan in specific and CBDCs in general going forward? Here are a handful of takeaways from this week’s announcement out of China.
China is still the global leader in CBDC innovation
Talking with CBDC experts like James Wallis of RippleX about which countries are leading the way on innovation in CBDCs, China is often treated as if it is in a category of its own. Among the more advanced economies in the world, none rival China in terms of their commitment to developing a CBDC. This week’s news of China’s digital yuan wallet being made available via the Android and iOS app stores is a testament to this leadership in the field.
While the United States has certain advantages in what has been called “the digital currency space race,” the lack of institutional support compared to what the e-CNY is receiving could play a significant role as digital currencies move toward broader use. This relative lack of support is a potential challenge both inside of the U.S. as well as internationally. “In the long term, the absence of U.S. leadership and standards setting can have geopolitical consequences, especially if China maintains its first-mover advantage in the development of CBDCs,” researchers from the Atlantic Council, a nonpartisan think tank on international affairs, concluded in December.
A digital yuan challenges offerings from Ant Group and Tencent
The timing of the Android and iOS app store launches is also noteworthy. The Winter Olympic games begin in less than a month in Beijing and it is believed that the Chinese government hopes to showcase the new technology during the weeks-long event. It has been suggested that if the new digital yuan wallet gains traction swiftly enough – selected Chinese citizens in any one of 10 provinces including Shenzhen, Shanghai, and Chengdu are eligible to download the wallet – there is a likelihood that the wallet will compete with commercial payment options from domestic firms like Ant Group and Tencent.
Interestingly, some American politicians are concerned enough about the presence of a digital yuan at the Winter Games that they have written a letter to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee asking that American athletes be banned from using it. The authors of the letter point to possible security risks, including potential “tracking and tracing” of athletes. The Chinese central bank, for its part, has indicated that the e-CNY will feature “controllable anonymity” that will protect data and prevent fraud.
The e-CNY could serve both China’s consumer tech and international finance goals
One of the conversations from 2021 that China watchers will be continuing in 2022 is the degree to which the country’s government is incentivizing “science-based” technology such as its semiconductor industry relative to more consumer tech/internet-based technologies. In some ways, development of its digital yuan cuts against this dichotomy. On the one hand, a digital yuan opens up consumer payment opportunities that could disadvantage commercial payment offerings, as noted above. On the other hand, the rise of a Chinese CBDC has the potential to play a major role not only in the digitization of China’s financial system, but also as a potential reserve currency for emerging countries or as a universal payment instrument for China’s economic partners.
“In the coming years, the e-CNY will likely be deployed across China as part of Beijing’s focus on bolstering domestic financial security,” Robert Greene wrote in a commentary for the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace last July. “The e-CNY could also be used to navigate international transactions around payment systems and networks that can be shut off to Chinese financial institutions serving U.S.-sanctioned entities.”
For more on China’s plans for its CBDC, check out this white paper published by the People’s Bank of China in July of last year.