As governments around the world manage their respective economic-restarts from the COVID-induced lockdown, there will be a host strategies and innovations employed to assist the process. For China, one element of that strategy may include the acceleration of its plans to introduce a digital currency.
China’s digital currency project has been underway since 2014 and reports just before the COVID outbreak suggested it could be introduced as soon as this year. Under normal circumstances, a successful digital currency would reduce payment frictions and demonstrate China’s ongoing efforts in technological advancement. But in the post-COVID era, when reviving economic growth will be paramount, the potential for enhanced commerce/consumption via a streamlined payment system becomes even more appealing.
To achieve relative stability, the digital currency would have to be more like a “stablecoin,” linking the currency’s value 1:1 to the renminbi and essentially creating a digital yuan. That construct would likely be more stable than one linked to a basket of currencies such as Facebook’s proposed Libra project, let alone one without any fiat currency linkages such as Bitcoin or Ethereum. It would be tantamount to a digital expression of the paper and coin form.
It is not yet clear exactly how the digital yuan will work. Likely it will be an app on a smartphone that one registers. There would, of course, be robust security and a record of every transaction both locally and someplace else. Henceforth when you get paid or receive funds, it would go directly into your secured account. When you pay, it would be withdrawn from the same account.
Chinese consumers are already more familiar than many westerners with paying for nearly everything from a smartphone. Alipay is ubiquitous, and a digital currency seems to be a modest evolutionary step. Even now, tourists in China need to access the local apps to do basic things, like secure a ride or purchase food or drink in many places.
The sheer size of China’s population and economy gives it a unique advantage to establish scale, turnover, and usage of a new digital currency. Sweden plans to introduce its own digital krona next year as part of its broader effort to ban cash transactions in 2023. Still, Sweden is a relatively small economy with a fairly homogeneous population where social trust measures run high. China is pushing hard to be the first large country to adopt a digital currency, and the pandemic may accelerate its efforts. There may not be the same kind of first-mover advantage with a digital currency as there was with selling books on the internet. Nonetheless, a digital currency, based on its patented technologies, is a prestigious accomplishment for the status-conscious Chinese elite.
A digital currency recognizes that a payment system is a utility. In an earlier era, electricity, gas, oil, coal, telephones were utilities, but perhaps we need to re-think what are their modern equivalents. It replaces this function of banks and credit cards and their derivatives (payment systems that depend on them). It allows for instantaneous payments. It squeezes the underground economy, even if human ingenuity finds some workarounds. Tax avoidance is also made more difficult.
At the same time, in an illiberal society, the digital currency can also become an instrument that extends command and control. Every transaction now becomes part of the public record. The line, already blurred between what is personal/private, could be obliterated by the digital currency. The surveillance state can be further empowered. In a society that rates social trust, is it a stretch to think about fines as well as rewards?
One thing that the digital currency will not do is to make the yuan convertible. And barring full convertibility, it will not have any meaningful bearing on the role of the yuan in the global economy. It is currently a [very] minor reserve currency, though included in SDRs. It has less than a 2% share of SWIFT transactions. The Dim Sum bond market and yuan deposits in Hong Kong are well off their highs set several years ago. A digital yuan by itself does nothing to enhance its position in the rivalry with the dollar.
Moreover, the COVID-induced financial market stresses—like the 2008 financial crisis—demonstrated the global market’s preference for US dollars during periods of extreme duress and uncertainty. That’s not merely a function of inertia; it also reflects the market’s confidence in the transparency and management of US currency, monetary and fiscal policies, relative to those in most of the rest of the world. A successful, digital, convertible yuan could advance the internationalization of the renminbi. But China’s management of its financial system and economy as well as its interactions in global affairs do not consistently build the kind of trust and confidence that global investors have favored most in times of severe financial stresses.