What is blockchain and why does it matter? Essentially a mysterious entity known only as Satoshi Nakamoto developed the foundational technology to create a decentralized, open source, verifiable and immutable ledger for internet transactions. However the concept of a distributed peer-to-peer internet where power and control is determined by a decentralized consensus directly contradicts the current Chinese model of internet governance. While everyone acknowledges the importance and power that blockchain technology promises, there are differing opinions on how to manage it. As a result, the United States and China have different approaches to regulating this technology.
Government’s across the globe have been slow to react to blockchain, with policymakers paralyzed by what could be categorized as a lack of understanding or perhaps the sheer quantity of use cases for blockchain can be overwhelming. When legislating for the regulation of the technology, cryptocurrency is at the heart of most of the discussion, however, blockchain technology is incredibly versatile and can be implemented in a variety of sectors. Let’s have a look at how the United States and China have attempted to structure regulatory frameworks for this emerging technology.
Generally speaking, federal agencies and policymakers have praised the technology as being an important part of the U.S.‘s future infrastructure, and stressed the need for the U.S. to maintain a leading role in the development of the technology. Some agencies have acknowledged the risk of over regulating and cautioned policymakers from passing legislation that would drive investment in the technology overseas. Essentially the less regulation, the more the private sector can experiment and innovative using blockchain, without the impediment of stringent regulations.
However, the United States has yet to create a blanket policy at the federal level, instead leaving it to state legislature to decide the appropriate regulation. “There’s no U.S. government strategy at all for blockchain,” according to an op-ed in The Washington Post. However, the Chamber of Digital Commerce recognizes the massive potential of the technology and issued a National Action Plan for Blockchain, urgently identifying the “need for a comprehensive, coordinated, pro-growth approach to developing blockchain technology in the United States.”
This has led to certain states in the U.S. adopting more favorable policies towards the technology. For example, Wyoming recently passed a bill exempting cryptocurrencies from property taxation. Colorado state legislature has passed a bipartisan bill authorizing the use of blockchain for government record keeping. Arizona has considered accepting state taxes in the form of cryptocurrency. The traceability and security of blockchain technology has highlighted tax collection as one of the most impactful potential use cases.
Arizona has actually become the first state in the U.S. to adopt a “regulatory sandbox” to practice and iterate developing and iterating blockchain for use in new emerging industries like fintech, blockchain and crypto. The law will grant regulatory relief for innovators in these sectors who desire to bring new products to market within the state. Under the program, which will take effect later this year, companies will be able to test their products for up to two years and serve as many as 10,000 customers before needing to apply for formal licensure. This lax regulatory legislation is meant to not only improve local economies but public services as well.
New York has adopted a contrasting approach to blockchain, creating such stringent regulations about the use of the technology that many blockchain and cryptocurrency based companies have left New York in search of regulatory environments more conducive to blockchain technology.
One could summarize the state of American blockchain regulation as scattershot at best, with a smattering of various state level legislatures attempting to introduce productive regulation. China’s approach to the technology, is, well, more organized to say the least.
Quite simply put, China is dominating the United States when it comes to blockchain governance and preparation for widespread implementation. Last year Chinese President Xi Jinping delivered an address during which he accentuated China’s desire to lead in global innovation, specifically citing blockchain, AI and the Internet of Things. China has significantly more patents related to blockchain than any other country in the world and some of the most well-known names in the blockchain and cryptocurrency industry are Chinese firms including Bitmain as well as the likes of BAT (Baidu, Alibaba Tencent).Blockchain has become a national priority in China. The Chinese State Council included its research and development in the nation’s 13th Five-Year Plan. On March 30, the CAC released a list of 197 registered blockchain firms, including units from Alibaba, Tencent and Baidu.
Two-thirds of blockchain-related patents come from China, while the nation also controls 72% of the global mining power capacity for bitcoin. At a private roundtable discussion by the Penn Wharton China Center, one participant noted that “China is very pro-blockchain technology and the government has positioned itself to dominate the blockchain space in the world.” This ambition to develop and dominate the blockchain powered future of technology is present in more than just political rhetoric. For example, China’s central bank, the People’s Bank of China, reportedly has been testing blockchain-based fintech products in Shenzhen.
However, it seems counterintuitive that the Chinese government would endorse the development of a new system of internet transactions where security is determined by a distributed consensus rather than a central management system.
But comments on China Central Television by Chinese official Xu Hao clarify the party’s stance: Blockchain in China is not about decentralization but “de-intermediarization. There is no way to get rid of the center.”
The Chinese government’s regulations on blockchain clearly stipulate that the state should have access to, if required, to any and all information stored on blockchain powered networks or products. In addition, the Chinese government will require real name authentication for the operation of and participation in blockchain ecosystems. While not a new practice in Chinese technology (you need real name authentication to use WeChat), blockchain networks and cryptocurrencies are often used in Western countries for anonymous transactions, often in gray legal territory. The Chinese government has clearly outlined that any use of blockchain technology to attempt to circumvent Chinese laws will be punished, and will be traceable due to the government’s access to the hash encryption.
While many see a new blockchain internet as a the democratization of an industry that is increasingly centralized, China is harnessing the technology to power their own internet that has been and will continue to thrive on its own closed ecosystem. Many experts in the West champion the promise of blockchain because of its capacity for improved secure encryption of data, thus preserving privacy, however has a China’s head start on development and implementation combined with a different attitude toward data privacy. This may mean that the earliest adopters or widespread blockchain usage will not provide a decentralized consensus built on private data, but instead bolster an already robust and prospering Chinese internet ecosystem, plugging holes in industries like micro-finance and further augmenting thriving sectors like e-commerce.