China’s tech crack down has truly reached mainstream in the US; even the Daily Show is talking about it.

With mainstream attention comes mainstream-level noise, confusion, and missing the forest for the tree. The biggest “forest” that people might miss is China’s development of its own blockchain-based digital currency, the e-CNY, amidst its broad ban on cryptocurrency (the “tree”). Granted, this “forest” isn’t big yet. So far, the e-CNY is deployed in 1.3 million endpoints across 10 cities and has only processed 70 million transactions. This adoption is meager, and thus easy to miss if we don’t pay attention.

China is both banning and embracing crypto.

Similar to our 3-part series on “Open Source in China: the Players, the Game, the Trends”, this post is Part I of a multipart series on the e-CNY, where we focus on the relevant players of this undertaking. Part II will focus on the e-CNY’s technology. Part III will focus on its strategic and geopolitical implications (the Game, if you will).

Note on terminology: e-CNY is the current official name (though still subject to change), thus that’s the term we will use throughout this series. This digital currency used to be called the DCEP (Digital Currency Electronic Payment); the name changed when the People's Bank of China (PBOC) published a progress update whitepaper (in Chinese) this July.

Player 1: PBOC -- Currency Gold and Silver Bureau (Security Bureau)

The most important institution driving the e-CNY’s development is the PBOC -- China’s central bank. But just calling it a central bank diminishes its far-reaching power. To analogize it more accurately from a US perspective, the PBOC is more of a combo of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, and certain divisions of the Justice Department in charge of cyber and financial crimes. It also built its own blockchain-focused R&D lab.

There are two divisions under the PBOC umbrella driving the e-CNY project:

  • Currency Gold and Silver Bureau (Security Bureau)
  • Digital Currency Research Institute (the R&D lab, more on it in the next section)

The Currency Gold and Silver Bureau (Security Bureau) is the more influential one among the two divisions. This was evident during the press conference releasing the aforementioned whitepaper in July, where two of the four officials present were from this division -- the bureau chief and his deputy. The other two officials were the PBOC’s deputy governor, who of course ranks above the bureau chief, and director of the Digital Currency Research Institute, who ranks below them all.

In short, the Currency Gold and Silver Bureau (Security Bureau) appears to be driving the “e-CNY bus”. This setup is important for two reasons.

Money flow: the Currency Gold and Silver Bureau (Security Bureau) is China’s mint. Among other things, it is in charge of issuing, managing, recycling, and destroying the CNY -- the basic responsibility of any mint. However, this responsibility becomes a lot less “basic” when a country’s currency usage is rapidly digitizing. That’s the case all over the world, but especially so in China. The Bureau has been having a hard time keeping up with the ubiquity of AliPay and WeChat Pay, as well as the many digital fintech services they have spawned. Building the e-CNY on a blockchain has obvious appeals to this Bureau. In plain English, a blockchain’s core use case is an unchangeable, incorruptible way to keep track of something (in this case, currency).

Financial crime and public security: beyond keeping track of the CNY currency, this Bureau also has a security portfolio, thus the “(Security Bureau)” part of its official name that I have not addressed until now. This is the only bureau under the PBOC that has a security portfolio. This mandate could range widely, from financial crimes and money laundering, to any currency-related behaviors that may affect public security. What constitutes “security” is intentionally vague. And what is a “crime” and how certain behaviors affect “security” means different things in different countries with different governing systems. Regardless of how “security” is defined, just keep in mind that the PBOC bureau that’s driving the e-CNY development has a strong interest in “security” of all flavors.

Player 2: PBOC -- Digital Currency Research Institute

The second important player, which I alluded to, is the PBOC’s Digital Currency Research Institute. This in-house R&D lab is tasked with researching and developing the necessary technology to make e-CNY real.

This Institute was founded in December of 2016. The timing is important to contextualize. From mid-2015 to February 2016, China experienced several stock market crashes, when trading would halt multiple times a day or completely stop. The volatility was a global issue, as these crashes affected other stock markets around the world.

In October 2015, the PBOC also launched a CNY-based Cross-Border Inter-Bank Payments System. The goal is to further “internationalize” the CNY by promoting it as a currency that can be used to settle cross-border transactions. This launch did not go well, because the stock market crash that happened shortly after made China’s financial system look unstable. The timing was bad; in comes the Digital Currency Research Institute.

Digitizing a national currency on a centralized blockchain could make the CNY a more efficient, cost-effective, and thus attractive option for cross-border settlement. In fact, that is the main use case of many USD-tracking stablecoins, like Tether, which is widely used to settle payments between merchants in China and Latin America. They just exist outside PBOC’s jurisdiction. The PBOC’s desire to “internationalize” the CNY has been many years in the making; the e-CNY is the latest iteration.

As the e-CNY’s official R&D lab, the Institute is responsible for most of the blockchain-related patents filed in China, which now number in the hundreds. Other state-owned enterprises like China Telecom and payment products like AliPay are also actively contributing patents, likely under the Institute’s guidance.

List of patents filed by the Digital Currency Research Institute from 2020-2021

Player 3: Ministry of Industry and Information Technology

It’s clear that the PBOC has centralized most of the authority connected to the e-CNY. However, there is another government body that may also have a role to play: the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology (MIIT).

I’ve discussed MIIT in detail in my “Open Source in China” series. It has a broad mandate in regulating and shaping the technology industry. It is also heavily involved in open source. The vast majority of crypto and blockchain projects are open source projects, from Bitcoin and Ethereum, to Dogecoin and Solana. Thus, MIIT’s involvement in the e-CNY is natural, though the e-CNY will likely never be an open source project.

So far, MIIT is leading the process of building a national blockchain standard. Last April, it formed the National Blockchain Committee to develop this standard. This committee consists of representatives from elite universities (Beida, Tsinghua, Fudan), tech companies (Tencent, JD, Baidu, but no Alibaba), and the vice-director of the Digital Currency Research Institute.

Player 4: Universities

In order for e-CNY to live up to its loft ambition, China needs blockchain technical talent, which is in short supply. Beyond the elite universities who are members of the National Blockchain Committee, many of which offer a blockchain course here and there, second and third-tier universities also see this talent demand gap as an opportunity.

One of the more visible universities in this space is the Chengdu University of Information Technology (CUIT), which announced the country’s first bachelor’s degree program in blockchain in 2020. Chengdu, home of the giant pandas and capital of the Sichuan province, may seem like an unlikely location to foster blockchain education. But Sichuan, with its cheap power, was also one of the hotbeds of Bitcoin mining until the recent ban.

It’s too early to tell whether this four-year bachelor’s degree in blockchain will yield the talent the e-CNY needs, if only because its first graduate won’t step into the job market until 2024. The business competition among second and third-tier universities in China is also fierce, often resulting in poor-quality programs that glom onto buzz words to attract tuition money.

Nevertheless, these university programs are a crucial element to China’s larger blockchain story. By issuing its blanket ban on crypto, China has decided to rely solely on its domestic talent to build the e-CNY and other blockchain applications, while effectively shutting out all foreign talent. It’s a high stake, high risk bet.

No Startups or VCs?

Astute readers may have noticed that I have not mentioned any startups or VCs in this discussion. Sadly, the startups, VCs, and private tech sector won’t be much of a factor in shaping China’s blockchain agenda in my view. If I had written this post last year, I would’ve mentioned a handful of startups, large crypto exchanges, the miners, and some investors. The recent ban changed everything.

The e-CNY is arguably the largest CeFi (centralized finance, as opposed to decentralized finance or DeFi) project in the world. Whatever shape the e-CNY takes will largely be what the rest of China’s blockchain industry takes. The only thing startups and VCs can do is wait for clarity, then follow along.

I hope this Part I of our multipart series on e-CNY gives you a solid overview of the relevant players.  Stay tuned for Part II (Technology) and Part III (Strategic Implications) of this series in the coming weeks.

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数字人民币: 玩家

国内最近对科技行业的各种整顿已经正式进入美国主流。就连《Daily Show》都开始议论了。

伴随着“主流级别”的关注即是主流级别的噪音、混乱,以及各种见树不见林。可能错过的最大的 "森林",就是在广泛禁止加密币("树")交易的情况下积极开发和测试数字人民币的现状。诚然,这个 "森林" 目前并不大。到目前为止,e-CNY部署在10个城市的130万个终端试点,累计交易笔数仅7000 万余笔。因为采用量还不多,如果大家不注意,就很容易错过。

中国既在禁止也在拥抱加密货币。

效仿去年写的《中国的开源世界:玩家游戏规则未来趋势》三部曲,本篇文章是关于数字人民币“多部曲系列”的第一部,主要讨论这一项目的相关玩家。第二部分将重点介绍数字人民币的核心技术,第三部分将关注其战略性的、对地缘政治的影响(也算是”游戏规则”吧)。

术语说明:e-CNY是目前的官方名称(尽管仍有可能改变),因此本系列中会用 e-CNY这个名称。它曾经被称为DCEP(Digital Currency Electronic Payment)。中国人民银行(央行)在今年7月发布的项目进展白皮书中,宣布了项目的改名。

Player 1: 央行--货币金银局(保卫局)

不奇怪,推动e-CNY发展的最重要机构是央行。央行旗下有两个部门是推动e-CNY项目的“主力”:

  • 货币金银局(保卫局)
  • 数字货币研究所(央行的内部研发部门,下一节有更详细介绍)

货币金银局(保卫局)是这两个部门中更有影响力那个。这一点在7月发布上述白皮书的新闻发布会上得到了明确显示:出席的四位官员中有两位来自货币金银局,分别是局长和副局长。另外两名官员是央行的副行长,他的级别当然高于货币金银局的领导,以及数字货币研究所所长,他的级别低于所有人。

简而言之,货币金银局(保卫局)主导 e-CNY。这种设置的重要性有两点:

货币流动:货币金银局(保卫局)就是铸币厂,它负责发行、管理、回收和销毁人民币——这是任何国家铸币厂的基本职责。然而,当一个国家的货币使用正在迅速数字化时,这一责任就变得不那么 "基本" 了。世界各地都是如此,但在中国尤其如此。该局一直很难跟上阿里的支付宝和微信支付的普及度所带来的货币管理难题,这些电子支付产品也催生了许多数字化金融技术服务。在区块链上建立数字人民币因此对该局有很大的吸引力。通俗地说,区块链的核心用例是以一种不可改变、不可破坏的方式来记录和跟踪某样东西(货币就是其中一种东西)。

金融犯罪和公共安全:除了跟踪货币以外,该局还有作为一个“保卫局”的责任。这是央行旗下唯一一个“保卫局”。安全的任务范围很广,从金融犯罪和洗钱,到任何可能影响公共安全、与货币和金钱相关的行为。什么算是 "安全问题" 是有意模糊的,而什么是 "犯罪",以及某些行为如何影响 "安全",在不同的国家和不同的制度下有着不同的含义。无论 "安全" 是如何定义的,需要记住的是,推动数字人民币发展的货币金银局(保卫局)对 "安全问题" 非常关注。

Player 2: 央行--数字货币研究所

第二个重要“玩家”是央行的数字货币研究所。这个央行内部的研发实验室的任务是研究和开发必要的技术,使e-CNY成为现实。

研究所成立于2016年12月。这个时间点的背景很重要,值得解释一下。从2015年年中到2016年2月,中国经历了几次股市崩盘,当时股票交易会在一天内多次暂停或完全停止。当时的股市波动变成了个全球问题,影响到了世界各地的其他股市。

2015年10月,央行还推出了一个基于人民币的“跨境银行间支付清算系统”。其目的是推动人民币成为可用于结算跨境交易的货币,推动人民币的 "国际化"。可惜因为股市波动问题,推动得并不顺利。天时地利都不佳,数字货币研究所横空而来。

在集中式区块链上把货币数字化,可以使人民币更高效、更具有成本效益,从而成为对跨境结算更有吸引力的一款方式。事实上,这是许多跟踪美元比价的所谓“稳定币”(stablecoin)的主要应用场景,比如Tether. 它被广泛用于中国和拉美商家之间的结算,但这些“稳定币”存在于央行管辖范围之外。央行想把人民币 "国际化" 的愿望已经酝酿了多年;e-CNY是最新的迭代。

作为e-CNY的官方研发所,数字货币研究所申请了大部分与区块链相关的专利,目前已达数百项。中国电信等其他国有企业和阿里的支付宝等支付产品也在积极贡献专利,但应该是在该所的指导下进行。

2020-2021年数字货币研究所申请的专利

Player 3: 工信部

央行主导e-CNY开发,这一点很明显。但还有一个政府机构也在发挥作用:工信部。

我在 《中国的开源世界》系列中详细讨论过工信部的作用,它在监管和塑造科技产业方面治权广泛。工信部也在活跃参与开源,而绝大多数加密币和区块链项目都是开源的,从比特币和以太坊,到Dogecoin和Solana。因此,工信部参与e-CNY也很自然,尽管e-CNY可能永远不会开源。

到目前为止,工信部正在领导打造一个国家区块链标准化的项目。去年4月,它成立了一个”国家区块链委员会“来制定此标准。该委员会由来自顶级高校(北大、清华、复旦)、科技公司(腾讯、京东、百度,但没有阿里)的代表,以及数字货币研究所的副所长组成。

Player 4: 各大高校

为了把e-CNY的雄心壮志变成现实,国内急需区块链技术人才,人才供不应求。除了作为国家区块链委员会成员的大学以外(其中许多已经开始开创区块链课程),二线和三线高校也把这一人才缺口视为机遇。

目前最引人注目的是成都信息工程大学,在2020年宣布开设全国首个区块链本科学位。作为大熊猫故乡和四川省省会的成都,看上去也许不像是个培养区块链人才的自然选择。但拥有廉价电力的四川,在近期的禁令之前,是比特币开采的中心地之一。

现在判断这个区块链本科学位的价值还为时过早,第一批毕业生要到2024年才会步入就业市场。二、三线大学之间的商业竞争很激烈,往往导致一些只为蹭热点的课程和学位出现,来吸引学费。

然而,各大高校的课程和学位是中国区块链未来的一个关键因素。发布对加密货币的全面禁令后,中国已经决定要完全依靠本国人才来打造e-CNY以及其他区块链的应用,把所有国外人才拒之门外。这是高赌注、高风险的一步。

没有创业公司或风投?

敏锐的读者可能已经注意到,我在文章中没有提到任何创业公司或风投。可惜的是,在我看来,创业公司和投资人等玩家不会主导中国区块链的走向。如果我是去年写的这篇文章,也许还会提到少数创业公司、有规模的加密货币交易所、大的“挖矿厂”和某些投资人。最近的禁令改变了一切。

数字人民币可以说是世界上最大的CeFi(集中式金融,而不是“分散式金融”或DeFi)项目。e-CNY采取什么形式面世,就将是整个中国区块链行业的形式。创业公司和风投唯一能做的就是等着大势明朗化,然后跟着走。

希望这篇关于e-CNY “多部曲系列”的第一部对您有所帮助。请继续关注本系列的第二部(核心科技)和第三部(长远战略影响),我们将在未来几周内发布它们。

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