By Wim Boonstra of Rabobank
- China may be the first major country to launch a central bank digital currency or CBDC
- The Chinese CBDC, named DCEP, will strengthen the position of the central bank and help to further modernize the Chinese economy
- The DCEP will probably also be available for China’s trade partners, to begin with Africa
- The DCEP may strengthen the international position of the renminbi to the detriment of the euro
- The arrival of the DCEP should be a strong wake-up call for Western, especially European, policymakers
Most central banks are busy preparing for the potential introduction of central bank digital currency (CBDC). CBDC is a digital currency issued by the central bank. It is sometimes referred to as a digital version of a bank note, but in many cases this is not correct. There are indeed many different potential variants.
So far, virtually all the central banks are keeping their options open as to whether a CBDC will ultimately appear.
China, where a far-reaching trial is under way, is the major exception. If this trial is successful, one can expect the Chinese CBDC to be introduced widely in the near future. China is therefore comfortably leading the way because the country has big ambitions for its digital currency. First, it should provide a sizable boost to the Chinese economy; second, it will concurrently further increase the Chinese government’s control of Chinese society; finally, the new currency is part of an ambitious plan to strengthen the international position of the renminbi, the Chinese currency, and potentially at the expense of the euro in particular. This Chinese decisiveness should spur European policymakers into action by further strengthening the euro.
China: from cash-based to almost completely cashless money in 10 years’ time
Not so long ago, retail payments in China were still almost entirely made in cash. There has been a revolution in payments traffic since that time, and China is now one of the leading countries in cashless payments. Unlike in other countries, such as the Netherlands and Sweden, in China this development did not originate from the banking system, but it was induced by a few key apps from relatively young Fintech companies such as WeChat (Tencent) and Alipay (Ant Financial). These parties, that form a kind of extra layer between the banks and their customers, now have a collective market share of more than 90% in Chinese payments cashless retail payments. The Chinese cashless payments system is already able to settle approximately 100,000 transactions per second.
The Chinese CBDC: DCEP
Against this background, the People’s Bank of China (PBoC), the Chinese central bank, has taken the initiative of developing its own digital currency known as the Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DCEP). Above all, the DCEP is a digital alternative to bank notes, although it has features that differ from cash in certain respects (see below). The DCEP does however have the same value as a renminbi.
The technology that can be used by the public for payments is based on traditional payment technology and not on blockchain technology. This is the only way to achieve the necessary scale. The aim is to reach a capacity of 300,000 transactions per second. The central bank might itself use blockchain, for example for wholesale transactions or settlements in DCEP between private banks. Although the DCEP is a cashless currency that will be held in an account with a private entity, there is also the possibility of using a token-based functionality on for example a chip to effect peer-to-peer payments, even where there is no Internet. This is especially needed for successful adoption in the rural areas of China. This token-based functionality will be widely used, as a result of which the DCEP will compete with cash. A sizable trial has been running for several months in which tens of thousands of people have been participating.
What does the PBoC want to achieve with the DCEP?
The PBoC has several objectives with the introduction of the DCEP.