China is years ahead of the U.S. on digital finance. Here’s why it matters.

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It’s hard to imagine a time when paper money was innovative. Those crimped and crumpled bills pressed in your wallet seem so stale today. But to our ancestors, the rumpled slips were a revelation.

I dwelt on that moment—the moment in the 13th century when the western world learned of paper money, by way of Marco Polo’s famous travelogue—while writing my latest feature about China’s digital currency ambitions. The recent work of the People’s Bank of China, the nation’s central bank, to deploy a digital yuan, may be a similar jolt of innovation from abroad.

Money has been going digital for decades, of course. In the United States, most money exists purely in computer databases; there’s only about $2 trillion of physical coins and bills in circulation versus $16 trillion for the majority of household wealth, which is held in less tangible forms such as savings accounts and the like, according to the Federal Reserve. And yet in the U.S. the ratio of cash use to use of other household financial assets—designations that humorless economists label “M0” vs. “M2”—remains among the highest in the world at 26%.

In China, things are quite different. In the past few decades, the Middle Kingdom leapfrogged from a poor and unconnected backwater to a global powerhouse whose masses are equipped with smartphones and app-enabled banking. Tencent’s WePay and Ant Financial’s Alibaba-linked Alipay dominate. Today, China boasts an M0/M2 ratio of 4%, among the world’s lowest.

China’s pursuit of a “digital currency/electronic payment,” or DC/EP, as its e-yuan is known, makes sense. Chinese society has already gone digital. What’s poised to change with the introduction of a national digital coin is the state will be catching up to—and reining in—the private sector, all while gaining expanded powers for itself. That includes the ability to scrutinize—and eventually even, possibly, program—money flows throughout the economy. In the end, China’s e-yuan gambit could even help it escape the vice-like international grip of the U.S. dollar, granting the country greater control of its trade and foreign policy destiny.

The U.S., on the other hand, has little interest in upsetting the balance that has worked so well for so long. America is mostly content to let the private sector plug holes that pop up in the existing financial system, on the assumption corporations abide by the rules. (Looking at you, Facebook.) The Fed’s eventual rollout of a long-overdue real-time payments system is a big step forward, but a national digital currency remains a distant prospect.

Ironically, the very sticking points holding many countries back from pursuing a central bank digital currency—privacy and security concerns chief among them—have instead propelled China forward. While dealing with know-your-customer and anti-money laundering issues might clash with the U.S. Fed’s political mandate to stay independent and above the fray, the PBOC appears eager to appoint itself new responsibilities. The crux of the matter is power, and who wields it.

If you’re like me, you might remember tuning in to the Beijing Olympics in 2008 and being stunned by the spellbinding opening ceremony. Perhaps you too thought: Wow, here is a country that doesn’t mess around. At the Beijing Winter Olympics in Feb. 2022, where the PBOC plans to roll out its digital yuan to a wider audience, we may witness a similar spectacle. When that happens, I suspect we’ll all be feeling a bit of déjà vu.

It’ll be the 21st century equivalent of that Marco Polo moment.

Robert Hackett