It may have banned cryptocurrency exchanges but, make no mistake, China is very interested in blockchain. Image: Reuters/Dado Ruvic
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Much as the 800-year-old Magna Carta provided the framework for modern-day governance through the rule of law, the nine-year-old Bitcoin whitepaper provided the framework for digital governance through codified law. Through Bitcoin, the concept of the blockchain was born, and blockchain technology will unlock opportunities on a global scale that could challenge China’s current dominance of the fintech and big data sectors.
With the Chinese State Council embracing blockchain in its 13th Five-Year Plan, and a 30-fold increase in the total cryptocurrency market capitalization in 2017, blockchain and cryptocurrencies have become a hot topic for China’s Gen Y – second only to “bare branches” (men left over from the marriage squeeze). Both corporations and the general public are being drawn into technology they do not fully understand. Chinese policymakers are therefore eager to set the framework and standards that accelerates industry adoption of blockchain technology, while protecting and educating investors amid the nascent and unregulated cryptocurrency ecosystem.
The results can be confusing. While officials at the Annual Meeting of the New Champions in Dalian in June 2017 welcomed a World Economic Forum whitepaper, “Realizing the Potential of Blockchain”, less than three months later the People’s Bank of China (PBoC) announced an immediate ban on ICOs – initial coin offerings, through which crypto start-ups raise funds for development – and the shutdown of all domestic cryptocurrency exchanges.
At the same time, Sun Guofeng, the Director of the Institute of Finance at PBoC, clarified that the ban “should not prevent relevant financial technology companies, industry bodies and other technology firms from continuing their research into blockchain technology”. Two weeks later, China’s Ministry of Industry and Information Technology launched the Trusted Blockchain Open Lab. The lab promotes the exploration of blockchain technology without becoming involved in issuing cryptocurrencies, or the exchanges that trade them.
These pro-blockchain, anti-cryptocurrency policies are a step in the right direction, given that the public still lacks the right understanding. Although, in the short term, they limit retail investor funding in highly speculative start-ups, they allow, in the longer term, higher calibre and better-resourced players to unlock real value from the technology. One such company is Alibaba, who in April 2017 decided to establish the very first blockchain industrial zone, nicknamed the Blockchain Valley, located at Alibaba’s Hangzhou HQ. Their pathway is now followed by other major tech companies establishing their own blockchain R&D centres, often in collaboration with one of over 150 Chinese blockchain-enabled companies.
As China prepares for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, built on unstoppable, unhackable application-driven blockchain platforms, its regulatory guidances hope to establish a formula whereby blockchain experts work with a critical mass of mature big data and technology companies, shepherding the integration of blockchain into key industries to future-proof China’s industrial development plan.
For the first time in history, data can now be immutably stored and transparent to all. To highlight how blockchain as a megatrend enabler can remove pain points and inefficiencies, here are three examples of how the world can benefit from the technology.
First, blockchain can play an important role in improving food traceability, as Walmart demonstrated when it trialled an IBM-based blockchain technology to trace food origins. The net result will be a more efficient procurement system, which can cheaply record and audit the process of manufacturing and delivery of food.
Green Hand, meanwhile, is part of the Alibaba Group and specializes in generating e-passports for physical goods. By scanning a QR code, it enables identity verification, recording the process of logistics, origin and destination by sending the tracking data to a “block” that provides a unique identifier that enables customers to visit. This not only enhances the transparency of a supply chain, but also makes it impossible for counterfeit goods to enter circulation.
Finally, everyone in the media knows the importance of having the right source materials. Since the internet gives everyone permission to send and receive, there is always the risk of questionable information being circulated. Blockchain can play a role in safeguarding the credibility of a news source – and also, by adding a “recall” function, can enable us to not only redact articles that are published with errors but also destroy all quotes and references to that article, to stop the proliferation of false information and the growth of an echo chamber.
Blockchain technology is also set to be involved in the next phase of the sharing economy, with some of the most striking examples coming in the field of smart cities. Governments know, for instance, that they can reduce congestion significantly by cutting down on street-side parking. By building a blockchain-enabled parking platform, which records real-time data about parking spaces, drivers will be able to reserve their spaces ahead of time and park on arrival.
In Australia, meanwhile, an energy-trading platform called Power Ledger is using blockchain technology to boost the efficiency of the energy market. Decentralization empowers households and companies to trade surplus solar energy directly, creating a truly groundbreaking point-to-point sharing economy.
Although blockchain can survive on the internet independently of regulation, the technology cannot become a mainstream platform without governmental support, public recognition and integration with leading technology sellers. Governmental support is essential to creating a inclusive ecosystem – and in March 2017, Australia released the “Roadmap for Blockchain Standards”, which cemented its position as the country with the most advanced regulatory framework around the technology. ICOs and exchange operators are already completely legal in the country, while June 2017 the Commonwealth Science and Industrial Research Organization submitted two reports to its Treasury illustrating the potential risks and benefits of blockchain technology on Australian society and industry.
Widespread acceptance of blockchain and cryptocurrencies depends on policy execution, which is only likely to happen if there are enough employers in the space. With governments not always willing to fund efforts to improve public knowledge, organizations such as Melbourne’s Blockchain Centre have arisen. This is a co-working space for start-ups that aims to help educate the public directly and foster the adoption of blockchain technology.
Blockchain has shown some technical limitations and deficiencies. At the end of 2017, due to deteriorating transfer speed and growing transaction costs, many individuals turned to Bitcoin Cash, resulting in a fluctuation of the Bitcoin price. At the same time, faced with threats such as quantum computing – a new generation of machines that experts say could crack Bitcoin by 2027 – miners and the companies involved in blockchain technology are busy searching for solutions. A company called Hcash has used ring-signature cryptography to attempt to overcome the quantum risk, and is confident it can protect Bitcoins long-term.
Generally speaking, the Chinese government has illustrated a positive attitude towards blockchain technology. But though it will be an essential part of the future, blockchain technology is still in its early stages of development. Working in the industry feels like walking on a path where the first sunlight is about to dawn. Even though our destination is unknown, I am excited about where it could lead. Blockchain deserves an infinite and imaginative future.
The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Adam Gong, Business development Manager, Financial Service, Australian Consulate, General Shanghai Commercial Section.
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The views expressed in this article are those of the author alone and not the World Economic Forum.
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