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Chinese Investors Keen on Banned Crypto, as Stocks Lost Value

Crypto trading has remained popular in China despite being banned on the mainland three years ago; endorsement of crypto in Hong Kong has allowed easy access to bitcoin and other tokens

A woman stands at a counter of a Crypto HK office in Hong Kong on January 22, 2024 (Reuters).


Crypto trading and mining has been illegal in China for three years, but that hasn’t stopped citizens on the mainland from investing vast sums in the sector.

Crypto has become a popular grey area targeted by Chinese investors disappointed by the property market crash and the declining value of stocks on local markets.

While cryptocurrencies are banned on the mainland and there are strict controls on capital movement across the border, people are still able to trade tokens such as bitcoin on exchanges such as OKX and Binance, or via other over-the-counter channels.

Mainland investors can also open overseas bank accounts to buy crypto assets.


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After Hong Kong’s open endorsement of digital assets last year, Chinese citizens are also using their $50,000 annual forex purchase quotas to move money into cryptocurrency accounts in the territory. Under Chinese rules, the money can only be used for purposes such as overseas travel or education.

Dylan Run, a Shanghai-based finance sector executive, started moving some of his money into cryptocurrencies in early 2023, when he realized that the Chinese economy and its stock markets were going downhill.

Run used bank cards issued by small rural commercial banks to buy cryptocurrencies through grey-market dealers, and capped each transaction at 50,000 yuan ($6,978) to escape scrutiny. “Bitcoin is a safe haven, like gold,” Run said.

He now owns roughly 1 million yuan worth of cryptocurrencies, accounting for half of his investment portfolio, compared with just 40% in Chinese equities.

His crypto investments are up 45%. China’s stock market, meanwhile, has been sinking for 3 years.

Like Run, more and more Chinese investors are using creative ways to own bitcoin and other crypto assets that they believe are safer than investing in crumbling stock and property markets at home.


Chinese brokers, entities testing crypto in Hong Kong

China’s economic downturn “has made investment on the mainland risky, uncertain and disappointing, so people are looking to allocate assets offshore”, a senior executive of a Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency exchange, who declined to be identified due to sensitivity of the topic, said.

Bitcoin and crypto assets have attracted such investors, he said: “Almost everyday, we see mainland investors coming into this market.”

As retail investors make a dash for cryptocurrencies, China’s brokers and other financial institutions aren’t far behind. Starved of growth opportunities at home, many of them are exploring crypto-related businesses in Hong Kong.

“If you are a Chinese brokerage, facing a sluggish stock market, weak demand for IPOs, and shrinkage in other businesses, you need a growth story to tell your shareholders and the board,” said the exchange executive.

The Hong Kong subsidiaries of Bank of China, China Asset Management (ChinaAMC) and Harvest Fund Management Co are all exploring businesses in the territory that deal in digital assets.


$86 billion worth of deals in 2022/23

Access to bitcoin isn’t that difficult on the mainland, according to checks of online crypto exchanges and interviews with retail investors.

Exchanges such as OKX and Binance still offer trading services for Chinese investors, and guide them to use fintech platforms such as Ant Group’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat Pay to convert yuan into stablecoins with dealers, to trade cryptocurrencies.

OKX and Binance did not reply to requests for comment.

Crypto data platform Chainalysis says crypto-related activities in China have bounced, and its global ranking in terms of peer-to-peer trade volume jumped to the 13th place in 2023, from 144 in 2022.

Despite being banned, the Chinese crypto market recorded an estimated $86.4 billion in raw transaction volume between July 2022 and June 2023, dwarfing Hong Kong, which witnessed $64 billion in crypto trading, Chainalysis said. And the proportion of large retail transactions of $10,000-$1 million is nearly twice the global average of 3.6%.

Much of China’s crypto activity “takes place through over-the-counters or through informal, grey market peer-to-peer businesses,” Chainalysis said in the report.

Brick-and-mortar crypto exchange stores, have sprouted in Hong Kong’s busy business and shopping streets. These offline shops are lightly regulated.

At Crypto HK, a popular crypto store in the Admiralty district, customers can buy cryptocurrencies with a minimum HK$500 ($64) and are not required to provide any identity documents.

The underground crypto market in China is thriving.

Michael Wang, a dealer who helps individuals buy digital assets, says daily volumes run into several million yuan or even dozens of millions.

Charlie Wong, a 35-year-old buy-side equity analyst, bought bitcoin via the Hashkey Exchange, an officially recognised marketplace in Hong Kong.

“It is hard to find opportunties in traditional fields. Chinese stocks and other assets perform poorly … the economy is undergoing a crucial transition,” he said.

China’s crackdown to deleverage the huge property sector bubble over the past three years has battered prices of homes, which were traditionally the mainstay in household savings portfolios.

The stock market has fared even worse, with the benchmark CSI 300 Index down by half its value since early 2021 and Chinese stocks said to have lost $6 trillion in value over that time.

Bitcoin, by contrast, has leapt 50% since mid-October, but is also known for its wild swings.

Wong believes Chinese officials are cognisant of how disruptive bitcoin can be and yet aware of its huge potential, and hence their endorsement of crypto trading in Hong Kong, to keep a toehold in the crypto business booming in financial centres such as Singapore and New York.

Hong Kong, though autonomously governed, is a Chinese special administrative region.

Chainalysis reckons the developments “have created speculation that the Chinese government may be warming to cryptocurrency and that Hong Kong may be a testing ground for these efforts.”


  • Reuters with additional input and editing by Jim Pollard




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Jim Pollard

Jim Pollard is an Australian journalist based in Thailand since 1999. He worked for News Ltd papers in Sydney, Perth, London and Melbourne before travelling through SE Asia in the late 90s. He was a senior editor at The Nation for 17+ years.


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