China is competing for more than just medals at the Winter Olympics in Beijing this month. It’s also quietly trying to define the future of money. Although attendees can pay vendors for food and souvenirs with a Visa or cash, they also have the option of holding up a phone, scanning a barcode, and paying with the “e-CNY,” or electronic yuan, one of the only so-called central bank digital currencies offered by a major economy.
Inside the Main Media Centre before the start of the games, Cai Qianyi, a 42-year-old media professional, used his Android phone to purchase roast chicken and broccoli. “This is very convenient,” Cai says. “Compared to carrying cash, this way I avoid touching currency notes.”
Experts say digital currency could give Beijing a wealth of real-time transaction data and tools to enact policy and expand its surveillance methods through direct access to its citizens’ digital wallets. And though the e-CNY is still in its early stages—transactions as of the end of 2021 totaled the equivalent $14 billion—setting standards for digital cash could eventually be a way for China to flex its geopolitical muscle. “The People’s Bank of China is trying to facilitate a new order for global payments,” says Yaya Fanusie, a former CIA analyst who is now a fellow at the Center for a New American Security, a think tank focused on foreign affairs and national defense.
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