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Friday, November 06, 2020, 10:59
Hong Kong at the front in driving digital yuan
By Luo Weiteng in Hong Kong
Friday, November 06, 2020, 10:59 By Luo Weiteng in Hong Kong

The visionary digital yuan project offers potentially huge opportunities for those with the foresight to jump on the bandwagon.

Those on the trail could include Hong Kong, which has the best of both worlds and will continue to be at the forefront of promoting the yuan’s internationalization, experts said.

“A currency’s internationalization cannot be possible without an international financial center playing a part. Hong Kong has what it takes to be the first stop outside the Chinese mainland testing the digital yuan’s potential,” said Fielding Chen Shiyuan, Hong Kong-based senior vice-president at China Construction Bank (Asia) Corp.

As the largest offshore yuan center, Hong Kong has a pool of more than 670 billion yuan (US$99.8 billion) although most of it is illiquid.

“For the time being, offshore yuan in Hong Kong is mostly used in financial investment and restricted to stores, companies and banks. The digital yuan may expand the use of the currency to more scenarios in people’s daily lives, offering a solution to a lack of liquidity and inadequate use of yuan in the city,” said Chen.

“Hong Kong boasts a well-established financial market infrastructure and e-banking system suited for digital currency transactions without causing too much of an issue,” said Herbert Yum, research manager at market research provider Euromonitor International.

According to Euromonitor, Hong Kong cash transactions have accounted for 17 percent of the city’s total consumer transactions this year — down 6 percent from 2017.

“The rapid development of cashless transactions in Hong Kong is expected to reduce the potential effect the digital yuan will have on the city as consumers are already used to digital transactions,” said Yum.

“However, since the Hong Kong dollar is the main currency used locally, it’s extremely challenging for the digital yuan to be widely used in the consumer segment,” he reckoned. “The long-existing dual currency credit card available in Hong Kong and the launch of AliPay HK and WeChat Pay HK that allow users to use Hong Kong credit cards to pay for goods and services in the SAR and Shenzhen offer little room for Hong Kong people to engage in more frequent digital yuan transactions.”

Hong Kong Secretary for Financial Services and the Treasury Christopher Hui Ching-yu said the city is most interested in wholesale and cross-boundary digital currency use.

“If the digital currency developed by the People’s Bank of China can be used for cross-boundary payment, it will further promote mutual connectivity between the mainland and Hong Kong,” he said.

Chen believes a more compelling story comes from the digital yuan’s capability to essentially connect Hong Kong life with that in mainland cities, adding flesh to the bones for the “living circle” in the Bay Area. “It acts as a lever to expedite deeper integration of the Bay Area,” he said.

Au King-lun, executive director of the Financial Services Development Council, said Hong Kong is well positioned to become a “sandbox” for the digital yuan.

As China further opens up its financial market and reduces its reliance on the US dollar, the yuan, which earned nominal international currency status at the International Monetary Fund in 2016, will gain prominence.

Morgan Stanley has painted a rosy picture for the yuan’s future, predicting it could account for up to 10 percent of global foreign exchange reserve assets by 2030 and become the No 3 global currency after the greenback and the euro.

Though China’s share of global GDP is projected to hit 18.56 percent by yearend, the share of renminbi in global reserve hovers at 2 percent currently. The yuan is now the sixth most used currency in international payments and is used to settle about 20 percent of China’s trade, according to the IMF.

The Basel-based Bank for International Settlements said the yuan’s share of international currency transactions last year was just 4.3 percent, compared to 88 percent for the US dollar.

Hui said the imbalance between the country’s double-digit share of global GDP and the yuan’s single-digit share of international transactions calls for more efforts to widen its use.

The digital yuan pilot project, together with the newly-launched Wealth Management Connect, which guarantees mutual access to wealth management products issued in the Bay Area and facilitates cross-boundary investments by individual residents in the region, will certainly help tackle the shortage of offshore yuan-denominated assets and take the yuan a step closer to becoming a global currency, Au said.

In the long run, how the digital yuan will make a difference in Hong Kong hinges on how the local currency positions itself, Chen said. He believes the escalating geopolitical storms and foreign sanctions highlight the significance of currency diversity and a complementary money system, which is crucial to the SAR’s status as a leading world financial center.

“The digital yuan can help Hong Kong transform its monetary system, from the Hong Kong dollar’s 37-year-old peg to the greenback, to a basket of currencies,” he said.

“Regulators should not hesitate to press ahead with new things. Indeed, they should speed up, especially with the dust likely to settle soon following the US presidential election.”


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