China's bitcoin clampdown is likely here to stay, analysts say

Key Points
  • Chinese authorities banned token sales this month and local exchanges, under regulatory pressure, plan to close by the end of September.
  • Analysts told CNBC the crackdown is likely part of a longer-term effort by regulators to control bitcoin.
  • However, like many major financial institutions, the People's Bank of China still sees potential in the blockchain technology behind bitcoin.
Here's why the worst of the bitcoin pullback might be still to come
Here's why the worst of the bitcoin pullback might be still to come

China's latest crackdown on bitcoin will likely shut down the local industry around the digital currency for good, several analysts said.

"I see the crackdown on bitcoin as part of this larger multi-agency program to reduce financial sector risk, which will unfold over months and probably years," said Jim Stent, author of "China's Banking Transformation." "I do not see risk reduction as something temporary prior to the [Communist Party Congress], nor do I see the bitcoin crackdown as temporary."

The 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China is scheduled for October 18, and Beijing typically tightens its scrutiny on sensitive areas such as access to Google. However, most analysts who spoke with CNBC said authorities' latest moves on cryptocurrencies reflect Chinese President Xi Jinping's long-term efforts to reduce speculation in financial markets.

On September 4, the People's Bank of China announced a ban on digital token fundraisers called initial coin offerings. Then last week, several major Chinese bitcoin exchanges including BTC China announced they would end trading by the end of the month amid reports Chinese regulators planned to shut down the exchanges.

The news sent bitcoin tumbling 41 percent from a record high above $5,000 at the beginning of September to a low of $2,951 Friday, according to CoinDesk. The digital currency recovered to trade around $3,884 Tuesday and has still quadrupled in value for the year.

Bitcoin one-month performance

Source: CoinDesk

The Chinese crackdown on bitcoin is "much more massive" than most of China's financial regulatory action in the past, including on shadow banking, said Martin Chorzempa, research fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

His view on the clampdown has turned grimmer in the last few days. On Friday he published an article on the Peterson Institute's website that said the clampdown "should be temporary," but given the latest news reports, Chorzempa told CNBC Tuesday that he would "potentially revise" his expectations.

This hedge fund titan thinks bitcoin is a bubble
This hedge fund titan thinks bitcoin is a bubble

On Monday, local newspaper The Beijing News reported, citing sources familiar with the matter, that the heads and top executives of bitcoin exchanges must stay in Beijing to comply with an investigation and are not allowed to leave the city.

The Wall Street Journal on Monday also reported, citing sources familiar with the matter, that Chinese regulators are planning a "broad clampdown" on bitcoin trading.

"My sense is they will eventually move to shut down the bitcoin mining operations," Paul Triolo, practice head, geo-technology, at Eurasia Group, said. China dominates the bitcoin mining industry, which some estimate is worth billions of dollars.

The People's Bank of China did not respond to an emailed request for comment early Wednesday morning Beijing time.

Chinese authorities have scrutinized bitcoin in the past.

In 2013, the People's Bank of China banned the country's banks from using bitcoin. Early this year, the central bank launched a probe into local bitcoin exchanges.

"Fundamentally it all comes back to control, and right now the party's all about control, especially around the 19th" Communist Party Congress, said Bill Bishop, head of The Sinocism China Newsletter.

"If it's a real policy it's probably good for bitcoin because it removes the Chinese risk factor, same like the fork," Bishop said, referring to bitcoin's rally in August after an uneventful split into bitcoin and bitcoin cash.

Global bitcoin trade volume by currency

Source: CryptoCompare

That said, Chinese authorities will not likely be able to easily stamp out a globally traded digital asset.

"I think that the crackdown won't shut over-the-counter trading completely, though it will make it less convenient. Discussions of OTC trades are now moving to encrypted channels like Telegram to ensure the privacy of the parties. Because Telegram is blocked in China it requires VPNs to access, and not all traders here are familiar with the technology," Denis Suslov, China-based blockchain consultant.

Like many financial institutions, the People's Bank of China has publicly signaled support for the blockchain technology behind bitcoin.

"Behind the scenes the PBOC has been keeping very close track of the development of bitcoin," Triolo said. Now "the cyrptocurrency problem has gotten exponentially more difficult for them to get their head around and regulate."

"Definitely bitcoin and cryptocurrencies' free [reign] is over. But the issue of how this will affect the blockchain industry is still unknown," he said. "China doesn't want to be left out of that. They'll probably still end up allowing some parts of blockchain to survive. The financial piece of bitcoin and the blockchain industry is what they're after."

Correction: This story was revised to correct Martin Chorzempa's characterization of China's crackdown on bitcoin. He said it was "much more massive" than most previous Chinese financial regulatory actions.

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