While the Trump administration’s ban of Chinese apps TikTok and WeChat has been making headlines, the digital yuan has quietly been making inroads into the currency sphere with its new payment rails and threatens to re-conceive the world in non-dollar terms, one digital yuan at a time.
Working as a store clerk in downtown Greensburg, Kentucky, in 1967, Tyler Reid couldn’t help but feel a grave sense of injustice every time a “colored” person walked into the provision store.
Although a good three years had passed since the civil rights movement ended racial segregation and institutional discrimination against non-whites, in small towns like Greensburg, in the heart of America’s south, it was as if the march on Washington never happened.
Unlike most whites, Reid had grown up on the poor side of Greensburg, on the edges of the “red lines” that segregated black and white neighborhoods.
Growing up in similar conditions of quiet despair alongside his “colored friends,” Reid knew that it wasn’t skin color which divided people — it was wealth.
Because although Reid was white, he had seen how the rich landowners of Greensburg looked down their noses at him as if he might as well have been “colored.”
So when Reid got a job as a store clerk at the biggest provision store in Greensburg, the owner of the store, a Richard Jenkins, who Reid quietly suspected was a member of the Ku Klux Klan, treated Reid with the same contempt that he did the store’s “colored” customers.
On a particularly hot and sticky late summer afternoon in 1967, a well-dressed “colored” woman walked into the store, her white-gloved hands (unusual for Greensburg) running across the shelves, in search of a particular brand of washing powder.
Jenkins, looked at Reid from the corner of his eye and grunted disapprovingly, almost as if to say, “it’s not like she can afford anything.”
Reid, ignoring his boss, approached the lady,
“Can I help you Ma’am?”
“Yes, I am looking for this specific washing powder,” the lady unfurled a newspaper clipping with an ad for a washing powder that was very popular in the south.
“Oh, of course, let me check,” Reid smiled and retreated to the back of the store.
As Reid headed to the stockroom to get the washing powder, Jenkins loomed over the doorway,
“Tell her we don’t have any?”
“I’m sorry Mr. Jenkins, what?”
“You heard me son, tell her we don’t have any.”
“But it’s right here.”
“Are you deaf or stupid boy? We don’t serve her kind here.”
Reid knew better than to get into an argument with his boss, so he scurried to the front of the store.
“Ma’am, I’m sorry that we’ve run out, but if you would let me know where you are staying, I can get some delivered to you.”
The elegant lady smiled, revealing a row of sparkling, almost incandescent teeth, giving Reid what was almost a knowing look, she handed him a card,
“I’m staying at this hotel for the next two nights. Ring up first.”
The next day, after Reid’s shift was finished, he rang up the hotel where the “colored” lady was staying and said that they had the washing powder back in stock and asked how much she would want.
Reid almost dropped the receiver on the phone when he heard the amount.
Spotting a business opportunity almost instantly, Reid went directly to the wholesaler of the washing powder instead of handing the sale to the racist Jenkins.
And within a day, Reid had delivered the initial order of five crates to Mrs. Stevenson — the “colored lady,” whom Jenkins had refused to serve.
As it turns out, Mrs. Stevenson came from New York city, where she and her husband ran a chain of hotels and was in Greensburg to setup the latest one.
That initial sale by Reid led to a long term contract with the Stevensons and their hotel chain, and made Reid one of the richest men in Greenburg.
Reid’s “color blindness” — serving whites and racial minorities alike — saw that initial order from the Stevensons, flourish into a string of successful distributorships across America’s south, serving the unserved and underserved alike.
Because ultimately exclusion creates opportunities for those prepared to be inclusive, and nowhere has this become more apparent than in China’s opportunistic central bank digital currency initiative.
The Elephant In The Room
Although the digital yuan was initially received with much skepticism by other central bankers, the coronavirus pandemic and the economic fallout from economies under lockdown, has since made more than a few central banks reconsider the issuance of their own digital currencies.
And while the Trump administration seeks to ban Americans from doing business with TikTok and WeChat, the bigger threat to American hegemony which has been ignored, has been Beijing’s quiet advance of its Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DCEP).
A structure described by the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), the central bank, as “one currency, two addresses, three centers,” DCEP comprises the two data centers, one run by the PBoC and the other by Chinese commercial banks, and the three newly created entities, that support the DCEP — the Registration Center, Circulation Center and Big Data Analytics Center.
The Registration Center applies “know-your-customer” rules to users of China’s digital yuan and issues credentials based on individual profiles.
The Circulation Center records the issuance, transfer and settlement of all transactions using the digital yuan.
And the Big Data Analytics Center focuses on risk management, including both money laundering and anti-corruption measures.
Unlike Bitcoin or other privately-issued digital currencies, DCEP is legal tender, which sets it apart from any other digital currency because it could potentially facilitate cross-border transactions.
And a time when the Trump administration has been weaponizing the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunications (SWIFT) settlement system for dollar transactions and international transfers, the DCEP’s rollout has accelerated, in anticipation of greater demand.
For the uninitiated, being excluded from the SWIFT system is a lot worse than not being invited to the cool kid’s party — it’s like being excluded from the high school cafeteria altogether.
SWIFT provides a network that enables financial institutions worldwide to send and receive information in a secure, standardized and reliable environment.
And while the cooperative society is owned by its member financial institutions, it’s no big secret that the United States is by far its most important and influential member of SWIFT.
Until the Trump administration, the U.S. has taken pains to ensure that it didn’t unnecessarily make its weight felt in the SWIFT system, in particular because the majority of cross-border transactions are still executed using dollars, as well as the central role of America’s banks to the SWIFT system.
But recent moves by U.S. President Donald Trump to politicize not just SWIFT, but a host of other global institutions, including (in no order of disruption), the United Nations, NATO and the World Health Organization, has seen many countries start to question American dominance in spheres which can no longer reliably depend on American exceptionalism.
In a global landscape where the U.S. no longer dominates the global economy and trade, many countries are increasingly questioning the use of the dollar, especially when the White House has demonstrated both a willingness and ability, to threaten and manipulate the international monetary system for its own political agenda.
Enter the DCEP.
Love Some, But Serve All
Beijing has long made clear to other countries that “you do you, just let us do business with you.”
Whereas America’s path to superpower status was built on ideology and regime change, China has proved that it is quite content for its trading partners to be run by dictators so long as the bills get paid on time.
And that has created an underbelly of client countries who are increasingly looking to the digital yuan and the DCEP to do business, to skirt around the American-dominated SWIFT system and to avoid U.S. sanctions.
Despite that China is the world’s second largest economy, according to the Bank of International Settlements, the Chinese yuan makes up a paltry 2% of global transactions.
Line at the bank was a little longer than expected. (Photo by Ling Tang on Unsplash)
But all that may be set to change with the DCEP and the digital yuan that courses through it.
The digital yuan gives the PBoC greater oversight of transactions, which could shrink China’s underground economy, reduce corruption and increase Beijing’s tax collection capabilities.
Up till now, the yuan (digital or otherwise) was not fully convertible.
The main reason for the yuan’s lack of convertibility of course was Beijing’s legitimate concern over capital flight — a fully convertible yuan could see a run on the PBoC, with millions of Chinese looking to stash their cash overseas, lest Chinese authorities discover their source.
But a digital yuan could solve the problem of convertibility because it’s inherently traceable, and even if Beijing never traced a single transaction (doubtful), the sheer possibility that it could, would act as a significant deterrent for would-be capital flight.
And that inches the yuan itself towards full convertibility and floats the possibility of the digital yuan being used as an instrument for trade and international transactions.
Because a digital yuan would enable Beijing to monitor its citizens’ transactions, but leaves the “global digital yuan” to do pretty much as it pleases.
Buying weapons in Liberia? The digital yuan can do it. Evading sanctions? Let’s do it in yuan.
But it’s not just for nefarious reasons that the digital yuan may grow in significance (and in this regard the dollar is no saint either) globally, China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), to unify the “World Island,” could also foster greater use of the digital yuan beyond the Great Wall.
Along the ancient trade routes which the BRI will weave through, foreign companies and merchants trading with Chinese firms for supplies, paying wages, and financing projects will require a common currency to transact in.
Considering that the United States has almost nothing to do with the BRI, it would certainly raise more than a few eyebrows if dollars were demanded from counterparties.
And digital yuan loans to Beijing’s client countries along the BRI could be dispensed through the infrastructure of the DCEP, increasing the all-important velocity (number of transactions) of the digital yuan.
Given that the digital yuan uses the blockchain — an immutable ledger — instant settlements and self-executing smart contracts would not only resolve issues of trust in cross-border transactions, it could facilitate transactions that would otherwise not have occurred.
The coronavirus pandemic has hastened a move towards digital and contactless payments, something which Chinese consumers were early and rapid adopters of.
Mobile payment systems like Alipay and WeChat Pay have grown exponentially and will complement growth of the DCEP.
And once tourism resumes, the Chinese tourist — long courted for their spending prowess — will want to find easier ways to transact such as by paying in the digital yuan through their smartphones instead of leaning on western credit card providers.
Countries looking to attract Chinese tourists to their shores will want to ensure that the needs of the Chinese tourist are accommodated, helping to spread the use of the digital yuan far beyond China’s shores.
Before the coronavirus pandemic, most of the high end European boutiques would make sure that there was at least one staff who could speak fluent mandarin on hand at any time and Chinese credit cards were widely accepted in the fashion capitals of London, Paris and Milan.
One would imagine that digital yuan would eventually be accepted as well.
For now at least, the digital yuan represents an entirely different take on what a global currency could be, currency without comment, denari without democracy and money without manipulation.
That is of course until the yuan itself becomes the dominant global currency, in which case, another currency will rise to usurp it.