A consumer orders online with digital yuan in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province in east China on December 12 (XINHUA)
Imagine a digital currency that can be used even without the internet, one that does not have to be linked to a bank account and is treated just as bank notes and coins.
China's digital yuan, although still being piloted, promises to include more people in this fast-developing digital era, making daily life easier and digital payment more secure.
In the eastern Chinese city of Suzhou, a resident surnamed Lu bought some snacks at a basement store in Tianhong Shopping Mall using digital yuan. She transferred 66.6 yuan ($10.21) from her digital wallet to the vendor's account, although both mobile phones were offline.
Lu was one of the 100,000 lucky residents of Suzhou who won a "red envelope" containing 200 digital yuan in a pilot program and could spend the digital currency in designated brick-and-mortar stores as well as on online retail giant JD.com from Dec. 12 to 27.
What is digital yuan?
According to a signed article of Fan Yifei, deputy governor of the People's Bank of China (PBOC), digital yuan will be positioned as a legal tender, designed to be treated as M0, meaning cash in circulation such as coins and bank notes.
The digital currency will be issued by the PBOC, the country's central bank, to designated commercial banks which will then distribute the currency to the public, according to the article published in the Financial News.
The rapid development of digital payment, especially mobile payment, in China not only meets the country's development demand but also develops the public's habit of using electronic payment tools, the official noted.
But there is still room for improvement in application scenario coverage, inclusive finance, payment efficiency, user privacy protection and anonymous payment for such tools, he said.
The digital supply of legal tender at the retail level has not kept pace with demand, while in places where financial services are less accessible, the public's reliance on cash remains high, and there is real need and expectation for access to and use of a central bank-backed digital currency.
M0 digitalization is a supply-side structural reform resulting from the development of currency and the evolving payment demand, he said.
How is it different?
From a user's perspective, using digital yuan wallet is rather similar to using non-bank payment platforms like Alipay or WeChat Pay. Users download the wallet app on their phone in which they can store their funds.
For online shopping, JD.com offers an option of paying with digital yuan at check out. Consumers could also try pay-on-delivery with their digital yuan wallet.
Users can also transfer digital yuan to others, draw funds from or deposit digital currency in their bank account.
However, in essence, digital yuan wallet is very different from non-bank payment platforms.
Unlike non-bank payment platforms that require users to link bank accounts, a digital wallet could be opened with any unique personal identification such as a driver's licence or a mobile phone number, said Dong Ximiao, a think-tank researcher with the Asian Financial Cooperation Association.
It is much easier to open a digital wallet than a bank account, which means China's unbanked population could potentially benefit from it and finally embrace the digital world, Dong said.
Moreover, digital yuan can be transferred freely among commercial bank accounts and non-bank payment platforms, breaking barriers in the industry, he said. Currently, consumers cannot directly transfer money from one non-bank payment platform to another.
Another important feature of digital yuan wallet is that it can be used in basements, on high-speed trains or planes where the internet signal is weak or there is no internet.
A customer pays for a LCD writing tablet with digital yuan at a store in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province in east China on December 11 (XINHUA)
Whom will it benefit?
As the central bank pushes forward the pilot, it has cooperated with major Chinese e-commerce and fintech companies such as JD Digits and Didi Chuxing. By the end of August, over 6,700 pilot scenarios covering catering, transportation, shopping, household bill payment and civic services were established for digital yuan payment. The development of a scenario covering online insurance is also under way.
In October, when the southern boomtown of Shenzhen issued digital currency worth 10 million yuan in 50,000 "red envelopes" as part of a pilot program, local residents and merchants were more willing to use the new form of currency than expected.
Shenzhen Cuizhu Store of CR Vanguard improved the store's checkout efficiency by upgrading its cash register devices to accept digital yuan.
"From Oct. 12 to 18, 450,000 digital yuan was used in our store, significantly increasing sales," said Shen Jun, the store's deputy manager.
Although the two recent pilot programs received great feedback, Dong said it will take time for digital yuan to be officially issued and used on a large scale.
Because of technological constraints, varying development levels across the country, and different user habits, digital yuan will not be able to fully replace cash, he said.
Looking at the introduction of digital yuan from a broader perspective, as the basis of all financial activities, a more convenient medium of exchange and means of payment is conducive to reducing transaction costs and improving the efficiency of financial operations, Dong said.
Digital yuan can complement and improve the current electronic settlement system and will be able to reduce risks following further expansion of the system, according to Katsuyuki Hasegawa, chief economist at the research division of Mizuho Research Institute Ltd.
Money laundering and terrorist financing may be difficult to track if done in cash, but digital currency will make it possible for countries to track transactions and capital flow, which can help prevent these illegal activities, Dong said.
Experts have spoken highly of digital yuan helping in advancing financial inclusion in China. Xiong Yu, a professor at the University of Surrey, said the digital currency can make sure the right money is delivered to the right people, thus making poverty alleviation work more effective.