FlyTitle: Financial technology

China aims to launch the world’s first official digital currency

中国计划发行全球首个官方数字货币【新冠报道】

CENTRAL BANKS have had a busy pandemic. Along with injecting vast amounts of money into the financial system, they have cleaned vast amounts of it—literally. From America to South Korea, central banks have quarantined and disinfected potentially contaminated banknotes. This hassle should make them all the more interested in a digital-currency pilot now under way in China. If successful, it could change how central banks manage both liquidity and physical cash.

各国央行经历了一场忙碌的大流行病。除了向金融系统注入大量资金,它们还大量洗钱——是真的洗。从美国到韩国,各国央行对可能受污染的钞票做了隔离检疫和消毒。这种麻烦应该会让它们对中国正在进行的一个数字货币试点项目愈发感兴趣。如果试验成功,它可能会改变央行管理流动性和实体货币的方式。

Dozens of central banks have started looking at whether to issue digital currencies. But only a few have run trials and none has gone as far as China, which appears set to become the first country to put a central-bank digital currency (CBDC) into limited use. China’s four largest commercial banks began internal tests this month. The city of Suzhou will give some to government employees next month to cover transportation costs, according to state media. Citic Securities, a brokerage, forecast on April 16th that China would formally launch the digital yuan later this year.

数十家央行已着手研究是否发行数字货币,但只有少数开展了试验,而且没有哪家走得像中国央行那样远。中国看起来将成为首个发行央行数字货币(以下简称CBDC)供有限使用的国家。中国四大商业银行本月启动了内部测试。据官方媒体报道,苏州市下月将用这种数字货币向政府公务员发放交通补贴。券商中信证券4月16日预测,中国将于今年晚些时候正式推出数字人民币。

China began exploring the concept in 2014 because of the technological upheaval in its financial system. A decade ago it was cash-dominated; last year mobile transactions reached 347trn yuan ($49trn), accounting for four of every five payments. An official digital currency could help address a risk from this transition. Were mobile-payment systems to fail or a crisis to erupt, people might want cash. But there is less and less of it in circulation. Enter the CBDC: people could move into “official” digital money in central-bank-authorised mobile wallets. They would also be able to transfer cash even when offline—for instance, via Bluetooth. A screenshot of one mobile wallet in testing recently spread online. It looked sufficiently reassuring, showing an image of a one-yuan note stamped with a central-bank serial number.

由于金融体系内发生的技术颠覆,中国从2014年开始探索这一概念。十年前,中国的金融体系仍由现金主导;去年,移动交易达到347万亿元,占交易总笔数的五分之四。官方数字货币可能有助于解决这种转变带来的一类风险。万一移动支付系统出现故障或一场危机爆发,人们也许会想转用现金。但流通中的现金已越来越少。这时CBDC便可派上用场:人们可转用央行授权的移动钱包中的“官方”数字货币。他们甚至还可以在离线状态下完成转账,比如通过蓝牙。最近网上流传着一张测试中的手机钱包的屏幕截图,上面显示一张印有央行序列号的一元钞票图像,看起来很让人放心。

But the bigger prize for China is the new powers that would come with a CBDC. China’s version will be a centralised currency, rather like the anti-bitcoin. Officials will be able to track all digital cash in circulation, making it much harder to launder money or evade taxes. The central bank could also use coding to control how the money is used. For example, if it issues CBDC to a commercial bank for lending on to small businesses, it could ensure that the money is activated only once transferred to a small firm. And China might find it easier to make nominal interest rates negative: cash would no longer be an alternative to bank deposits because negative interest rates could apply to digital cash itself.

但对中国而言,更大的好处是CBDC带来的新权力。与比特币相反,中国的CBDC将是一种中央化货币。官员们将能追踪所有流通中的数字现金,大大提高洗钱或逃税的难度。央行还可以运用编码控制货币的使用方式。举例来说,如果要把CBDC发行给一家商业银行供它放贷给小企业,央行可以确保只有当这笔资金转移到小企业的账户后才能激活。中国可能还会发现实施负名义利率变得更容易了:即便是使用现金而不在银行存款也逃不过,因为负利率同样可以施加到数字现金上。

These powers are still some way off. Given the risks inherent to such a transformation, China will phase in the CBDC very gradually. Citic Securities estimates that it will take several years for the digital yuan to replace just about 10% of all physical cash in China. For now central banks must continue to worry about money-laundering—both illegal and antiviral.■

要获得这些权力尚有一段距离。考虑到这一变革本身固有的风险,中国将一小步一小步地引入CBDC。中信证券估计,要花几年的时间,数字人民币才能置换掉中国实体现金总量的仅仅约10%。目前而言,各国央行仍必须为洗钱操心,不管是非法的洗钱还是为杀灭病毒的洗钱。