Chinese bitcoin traders still wield 'enormous influence' despite Beijing's 4-year crypto crackdown

Key Points
  • Chinese bitcoin traders continue to thrive despite Beijing's four-year crackdown on cryptocurrencies, experts told CNBC.
  • China shut down local exchanges and banned initial coin offerings in 2017, but this year, there have been renewed fears of a harsher crackdown from authorities.
  • Bitcoin's price has been impacted by recent comments from industry bodies and regulators regarding cryptocurrency in China.

In this article

In this photo illustration, the Bitcoin logo is seen on a mobile device with People's Republic of China flag in the background. (Photo Illustration by t/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Budrul Chukrut | SOPA Images | LightRocket | Getty Images

GUANGZHOU, China — Chinese bitcoin traders continue to thrive despite Beijing's four-year crackdown on cryptocurrencies, experts told CNBC.

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. The vice premier'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% of bitcoin trading was done with the Chinese currency renminbi, 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, Chinese renminbi accounted for just 0.07% 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.

What was behind the cryptocurrency crash?
What was behind the cryptocurrency crash?

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

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 $4,000. On Tuesday, it stood at over $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."