The Dawn of the Digital Yuan: China’s Central Bank Digital Currency and Its Implications

Asia Paper June, 2021, pp. 47


  • The COVID-19 pandemic has driven digital innovation and proved to be an enabling episode for the technology industry; the growing focus on central bank digital currencies (CBDCs) comes within such a context. China has rushed to the forefront of the CBDC race to lay the foundation of the widespread implementation of its Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DCEP) system. Although over 80 percent of the world’s central banks are engaged in CBDC research and 40 percent are working on pilot programs, the People’s Bank of China (PBoCleads in this domain. 
  • After being engaged in cryptocurrency research since 2014, China launched the digital yuan in 2020 with the aim of achieving its extensive circulation domestically by the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing. The coming year is therefore set to be a critical period for the DCEP, as China aims to emerge as a leader in the space and gain dominance over the US in their great power competition. The coming year is therefore set to be a critical period for the DCEP, as China aims to emerge as a leader in the space and gain dominance over the US in their technological great power competition. 
  • To realize this ambition, the PBoC conducted multiple large-scale trials with massive stimulus package disbursements in major cities (including Shenzhen, Suzhou, Chengdu, Xiong’an New Area, Shanghai and Beijing) with the involvement of major national and multinational retailers (such as Qingfeng, Baozi, McDonald’s, Subway and Starbucks, to name but a few). China’s phased implementation of DCEP is strategic, focused primarily on major financial hubs with vibrant local and international trade and business communities. DCEP’s expansion into Hong Kong follows a parallel strategy under its RMB internationalization goals. Ultimately, China hopes to expand the DCEP such that it becomes an accepted mode of transaction alongside its massive supply chain networks and connectivity routes.  
  • However, the PBoC has released scant details on the DCEPs technicalities, design and distance; the DCEP’s technical structure and operational details are closely guarded as tantamount to state secrets. Reports suggest that it will operate on a “two-tier operating system” in which the central bank acts as the first tier and commercial banks as the second. Yet, several legal issues pertaining to data privacy and policy frameworks by which the DCEP will be governed remain unclear. Amid such uncertainties, which are only compounded by Beijing’s recent aggressive behavior in the region, the DCEP’s success will be invariably dependent on the level of trust and confidence that Beijing can create in the system; this will require increased transparency and more openness regarding technological and legal imperatives.  
  • China has sought to put such key questions on the backburner as it pushes ahead with the DCEP system to gain a first-to-market advantage. Crucially, China hopes that this edge can help position it to shape the international norms and laws that will govern the fintech and advanced technology space. In other words, gaining firstmover advantage is critical for Beijing to promote a ‘China model’ of techno-authoritarianism in global norms. Therefore, while the US’ CBDC efforts are bogged down by a democratic approach to DCEP development, Beijing’s amplification of DCEP testing seeks to establish unrivaled superiority in the fintech field, and CBDCs particularly, against a backdrop of intensifying great power competition with the US.   
  • Importantly, the digital yuan comes as the next major milestone in China’s RMB internationalization objective, which has been a foremost concern since the 2009 financial crisis, increasing the global circulation of the RMB; this will allow Beijing to hedge against the US dollar’s global hegemony. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is central to this goal: DCEP can be incorporated and promoted via the transactions carried out under the BRI corridors. Such cross-border use of the digital yuan could also critically extend China’s technological control and surveillance capabilities beyond its borders – making it a security concern for BRI participant states as well as other trade partners.  
  • Domestically, the DCEP is a part of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) drive to ‘digitalize’ and ‘intelligentize’ its government and private institutions, economy, and society. In practice, however, the DCEP could act as a surveillance coin over the Chinese population and allow the CCP to further consolidate power by strengthening its digital authoritarianism. The DCEP will, in all likelihood, provide the Chinese authorities with access to the transaction data of all users, transforming the system into a big data set that the government can employ to track citizen behavior. Although the PBoC has stated that DCEP will protect privacy, early models of the digital currency also suggest that the PBoC (and therefore the CCP) will have the ability to analyze the vast troves of financial data available in real time. The technology could thus put in place a politically intimidating social governance system that will give the authoritarian Chinese state more power. It could potentially be embedded within the CCP’s existing social credit system and AI-based surveillance system as a tool of oppression to identify political dissenters.  
  • The DCEP’s role as a surveillance tool and the related human rights implications, as well as its implications for China’s global role, require serious consideration. The balancing powers must thoroughly study the DCEP’s technological framework – especially in terms of how it collects and manages user data – and assess the cyber risks it poses. Beijing already holds a clear-cut advantage in the CBDC domain. To compete, balancing powers must expedite the development of their own CBDCs and cooperate and collaborate to ensure that they can act as standard-setters of the international crypto governance framework.