Chinese traders a significant force in bitcoin trade, despite crackdown

Chinese bitcoin traders continue to thrive despite Beijing’s four-year crackdown on cryptocurrencies, experts told CNBC’s Arjun Kharpal.

On Friday, Chinese Vice Premier Liu He said it is necessary to “crack down on Bitcoin mining and trading behavior” to prevent risks to the “social field.”

For a long time, Chinese authorities have been concerned about the speculative nature of cryptocurrencies and their risk to the stability of the financial system. Liu’s latest comments have sparked fears of an intensified crackdown.

But tough words from Beijing are not new. In 2017, China shut down local cryptocurrency exchanges and banned so-called initial coin offerings (ICOs), a way to raise money for crypto companies by issuing digital tokens.

In November 2015, about 92 percent of bitcoin trading was done with the yuan, according to data from CryptoCompare, a cryptocurrency data company. Chinese traders had the ability to move the market quite significantly on any news related to bitcoin in China. But by November 2017, yuan accounted for just 0.07 percent of the total bitcoin market.

However, that masks the fact that Chinese traders still remain a significant force in bitcoin trade, according to Matthew Graham, CEO of Sino Global Capital, a Beijing-based venture capital firm focused on blockchain technologies.

“The waning influence of Chinese bitcoin traders is an exaggerated story,” Graham told CNBC. “The fact is that Chinese traders still wield enormous influence.”

China’s role in bitcoin was thrust back into the spotlight last week after authorities reiterated that financial institutions should not get involved in cryptocurrency businesses such as trading or helping to exchange fiat into digital coins. These were not new regulations.

But it was one of the reasons for the plunge in bitcoin last Wednesday, which at one point fell 30% to just over US$30,000 before seeing a recovery.

Chinese investors were also selling, but their trades may have been motivated by other factors.

“For clarity, anecdotally skittish Chinese retail investors were heavily involved in yesterday’s sell-off. But this was more a function of price action than anything to do with local regulations,” Graham said Thursday.

So what has happened to Chinese bitcoin trading?

As China increased its scrutiny of the cryptocurrency sector, a sort of grey market was created. Chinese exchanges such Huobi and OKEx moved offshore since they were not able to be licensed on the mainland.

Some of these platforms offer crypto-to-crypto trading such as buying bitcoin with the U.S. dollar-linked stablecoin called tether (USDT). Some platforms offer a renminbi to USDT conversion service which allows Chinese users to get the crypto required to buy bitcoin.

“Once someone has purchased Bitcoin, they can then deposit it on overseas exchanges that allow crypto to crypto trading,” Constantine Tsavliris, head of research at CryptoCompare, said.

In early September 2009, when China ordered local cryptocurrency exchanges to shut down, bitcoin was trading at just over US$4,000. On Tuesday, it stood at over US$38,000, according to CoinDesk data.

“I think there is more (Chinese) traders (now). Bitcoin has gained an order of magnitude in price,” Bobby Lee, former CEO of one of China’s earliest cryptocurrency exchanges BTCC, told CNBC.

“These days, more and more people are using stable currencies like USDT,” said Lee, who is also the founder of cryptocurrency wallet Ballet.

“What that means is they no longer have to deal with RMB transfers, it is moving to a USDT payments society and moving into and out of bitcoin. It’s becoming an underground currency.”

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