will going digital transform the yuan’s status at home and abroad?


don’t count on it: the new yuan will be a lot like the old yuan


with a few taps on her phone, lu qingqing, a 24-year-old office worker, leapt into the monetary future. she was one of 50,000 people in shenzhen selected late last year for a trial of china’s digital currency, called ecny.?


she downloaded an app, received 200 yuan ($30) from the government and went shopping for books. the app’s display showed a traditional banknote. “it felt like real money,” she says.


legally, it is as real as hard cash. all the money in an ecny app, offered by one of six commercial banks, is backed by an?equivalent?deposit at the people’s bank of china.?


just as the central bank stands behind any paper yuan, so does it guarantee ecny. if, say, the commercial bank that made ms lu’s digital wallet went bust, her ecny—linked to her personal-identity number—would be transferred to a new wallet.


central banks worldwide are considering issuing digital versions of notes and coins. although china will not be the first (that honour goes to the bahamas), it is the most important launching ground. it is the world’s leader in mobile payments.?


more than half a million people have already received ecny in trials since last year. china’s central bank is studying how to spread it abroad. niall ferguson, a historian, has called on america to wake up to the peril of letting china “mint the money of the future”.


china’s digital currency was first conceived as a way to curb the big mobile-money providers. now three bold claims are being made about it: that it will dramatically enhance china’s surveillance capabilities; that it will allow the state to wield far more control over money; and that it will challenge the dollar for prominence.


within china, however, many economists are far less bullish. the design of the ecny, and the nature of china’s economic system, mean that each of these claims is unlikely to be realised soon. “the digital yuan is not magic, so we don’t expect magic from it,” says gary liu of the china financial reform institute in shanghai.


the three more radical claims about it may not be realised, but will the ecny fulfil the original aim, of giving the central bank a foothold in the digital-payme
nts universe??


probably, but not a giant one. after the ecny trial in shenzhen, ms lu said that she would use it for some payments, but that alipay and wechat were far more convenient because of how they tie into commercial and social-messaging networks.?


mr liu of the china financial reform institute expects others to?concur. he predicts that in three years the ecny will account for less than 5% of mobile payments.


western governments and central bankers mulling digital currencies of their own may wonder if the outcome of the ecny experiment will contain any lessons for them.?


but china is unusual in so many ways—from its sheltered financial system and?intricate?capital controls to the size of its mobile payments—that its experience could well prove to be unique.?


and other countries are sure to implement different designs for their digital currencies. still, china’s caution with the ecny, if nothing else, hints at how disruptive the technology, if unconstrained, could be.?




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