China Announces Its Own Cryptocurrency: Will the United States Follow?

With decentralized cryptocurrencies like bitcoin so widely used, many countries are considering government-sponsored digital currencies, also called digital fiat currencies or central bank digital currencies (CBDC).

China has effectively leapfrogged the West by conducting a limited trial launch of its digital yuan. However, other countries may not be far behind—according to the Economist in 2020, some 80% of central banks were studying CBDCs, including the U.S. Federal Reserve. 

It’s clear that CBDCs have the potential to revolutionize monetary systems. What are the issues prompting the move toward CBDCs, and what does China’s e-yuan mean for the rest of the world?

How do central bank digital currencies differ from other cryptocurrencies, and from digital payment technologies?

Most people have used digital payment technologies like Venmo, Apple Pay, and electronic bank transfers to complete transactions. However, these are technologies that move money around, not a different form of currency.  

CBDCs also differ from decentralized cryptocurrencies like bitcoin and Ethereum. These cryptocurrencies are not considered legal tender (recognized by law as a means to settle public or private debts, like the U.S. dollar). At the same time, most countries do not forbid people from using cryptocurrencies. Because they are decentralized, these cryptocurrencies are by definition not regulated by one authority; if both parties in a transaction agree to use bitcoin, they can. For tax purposes in many countries, a cryptocurrency may be considered property, rather than currency.

In contrast, a CBDC is legal tender, issued and regulated by a country’s central banking authority like the dollar in the U.S. It is a virtual form of government-issued currency and would be backed by reserves. Because CBDCs are still in the research, development, or pilot phases in several countries around the world, there are still many uncertainties regarding exactly how they would work from country to country.

Why are national governments interested in CBDCs?

Just a few years from now, global digital transactions are predicted to top $9 trillion. Some experts contend that countries around the world need to develop their own cryptocurrencies just to catch up with this trend. Others say that the popularity of cryptos may pose a threat to a central banking authority’s ability to regulate monetary policy.

CBDCs take the convenience of cryptocurrencies and marry it with the regulations and government control of the traditional banking system. It is increasingly expensive to manage and transfer physical cash, and CBDCs could reduce this cost while allowing greater insight into the flow of money within an economy. A state-sponsored digital currency might also promote financial inclusion, enabling individuals without a bank account to access the financial system.

At the same time, critics contend that transactions made with CBDCs would not be anonymous, since by definition CBDCs are a centralized form of cryptocurrency.   

Which countries are exploring CBDCs?

In February, the Atlantic Council published this helpful map showing the state of CBDCs around the world. Many countries, including the U.S., are in the research phase. Brazil launched Pix, an instant money transfer system, last year but has not launched a true digital real. Sweden, Thailand, and Ukraine are in the pilot stage, along with China.

Ecuador presents an interesting case and possible cautionary tale, though the circumstances behind its CBDC are unique. Ecuador adopted the U.S. dollar in 2000, then 15 years later became the first country to implement a state-run electronic payment system. The dinero electrónico (DE), as it was called, was intended to support the country’s dollar-based monetary system, not replace it. However, the DE was widely mistrusted, with relatively few citizens using it. It was abolished in December 2017.

How is China leading the way with its digital yuan?

China’s digital yuan has been in development for more than five years, and the country is the first major economy to issue a CBDC. Real world trials of the digital yuan are currently underway in several regions and cities, including Shenzen, Suzhou, Chengdu, Xi’an, and Shanghai. South China Morning Post reported that more than 100 million yuan have been allocated by lottery to tens of thousands of people. The currency can be used for shopping in certain participating stores, paying utility bills and government services, and paying for catering services.

The digital yuan is tipped to increase competition in China’s mobile payments market, an arena currently dominated by Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Ant Group’s Alipay.

Supporters of decentralized cryptocurrencies have criticized the digital yuan’s lack of anonymity. Representatives of the People’s Bank of China have contended that the digital yuan will have “controllable anonymity,” meaning that users will not be able to view other users’ identifying information unless they provide it. However, the bank itself will still be able to monitor the entire user base.

How does the digital yuan affect the U.S.?

Some economists have voiced concerns that the yuan is becoming an increasingly strong challenger to the U.S. dollar, threatening the dollar’s status as the mainstay of international commerce.

In an interview with CNBC, however, Fundstrat head of digital assets research David Grider voiced skepticism about the impact of the digital yuan. He explained that he did not believe that the digital yuan would materially change very much in terms of the dollar’s role in the world, because of the fundamental differences between the two countries’ monetary systems.

Nevertheless, other analysts caution against complacency, warning that the U.S. runs the risk of falling behind globally if it doesn’t prioritize the development of a CBDC.

What is the U.S. Federal Reserve doing with regards to a CBDC?

In the U.S., the concept of a digital dollar has so far garnered a lukewarm reception. In September 2020, the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston announced that it was working with MIT on a multi-year research initiative that will test hypothetical CBDC systems for wide-scale use, with a focus on architecting a scalable, accessible cryptographic platform.

 In March, Federal Reserve chair Jerome Powell described the Fed’s research into CBDCs as “early and exploratory,” according to the New York Times. He said the U.S. would only consider a CBDC launch if there was widespread buy-in from the public and political leaders. He cited money laundering and cybersecurity vulnerabilities as risks tied to CBDCs that could disrupt the country’s banking system.

5 of Malaysia’s Most Spectacular Attractions

Malaysia is a diverse, multicultural nation, with myriad attractions to keep visitors entertained, irrespective of age or budget. From the country’s cosmopolitan capital, Kuala Lumpur, where colonial palaces vie with the ultramodern Petronas Twin Towers, to the jungles of Borneo, we look at five of the country’s most impressive attractions.

1. Gunung Mulu – Sarawak

Sarawak is located in Borneo, a stone’s throw from Brunei. The sultanate is home to several national parks, including Gunung Mulu, a UNESCO World Heritage Site that was featured in the BBC’s award-winning Planet Earth series.

World famous for both its unique geographical features and high biodiversity, the park is dominated by gargantuan karsts—columns of rock reaching hundreds, even thousands, of meters into the sky. The park is named after its highest peak, Gunung Mulu, a pinnacle of sandstone that stands a colossal 2,377 meters.

Boasting an extensive underground cave system, with an estimated 295 kilometers of caves yet to be explored, Gunung Mulu National Park is home to the world’s largest cave chamber, the Sarawak Chamber, which measures 600 x 415 x 80 meters.

Gunung Mulu National Park’s deep canyons, wild rivers, and rainforest-swathed mountains are home to an assortment of rare wildlife, including 3,500 species of plants. Fauna includes giant porcupines, monkeys, civets, deer, and hornbills, as well as a myriad of vividly colored dragonflies and butterflies.

2. Petronas Twin Towers – Kuala Lumpur

Standing 452 meters high, with 88 floors and 76 elevators, the Petronas are the tallest twin towers on earth. Composed of reinforced concrete, steel, and glass, the structures are connected on the 41st and 42nd floors by a double sky bridge.

The Petronas Twin Towers boast stunning views of Malaysia’s capital city, particularly at night. While most of the floor space is rented to companies like Microsoft, IBM, and Huawei Technologies, the towers’ lower floors comprise one of Malaysia’s largest shopping centers. It features more than 300 shops, as well as an art gallery and even a Philharmonic Hall.

3. Sipadan Island

Located in the Celebes Sea, the waters of Sipadan host a vast coral seascape formed in an extinct volcano cone. Due to its vast population of marine life, Sipadan has earned a global reputation as a diver’s paradise.

Home to hundreds of different types of coral and more than 3,000 species of fish, Sipadan is one of the world’s most spectacular diving spots, offering divers opportunities to swim with manta rays, green and hawksbill turtles, whale sharks, schools of barracuda, parrotfish, and potato head groupers. It also is home to several sharks, including black- and white-tipped.

4. Langkawi Island – Kedha

Situated on Malaysia’s West Coast, 30 kilometers from the mainland, Langkawi is the most northernmost archipelago in Malaysia. This duty-free haven is easily accessible by air or by boat, either from Malaysia or Thailand.

Langkawi, with its picture-perfect white-sand beaches, is touted as Malaysia’s ultimate island escape. With year-round sea temperatures hovering around 84 degrees Fahrenheit, Langkawi’s waters are incredibly inviting. Jellyfish can be a problem, although several resorts have installed anti-jellyfish nets to protect their guests.

Langkawi offers a range of accommodation types, from basic beach huts to boutique hotels. On the southwest coast, Pantai Cenang is Langkawi’s busiest town. Travelers can find a diverse mix of cuisines, as well as duty-free outlets and souvenir shops lining the picturesque beach strip.

For those seeking a more laid-back experience, the northern beaches of Tanjung Rhu, lapped by the crystal-clear turquoise waters of the Andaman Sea, can be the perfect place to relax and unwind.

The archipelago is a popular destination for nature enthusiasts, with the Langkawi Skycab presenting a unique opportunity to rise high above the rainforest’s dense canopy to gaze across the glittering ocean. From here, on a clear day, visitors can catch glimpses of Southern Thailand.

For those seeking a closer encounter with the jungle, experienced guides lead treks through the rainforest slopes of Gunung Raya. Another trail leads visitors to the Telaga Tujuh (“Seven Wells”) waterfalls, a site frequented by fairies, according to local folklore.

5. Cameron Highlands – Pahang

One of Malaysia’s largest hill stations, the Cameron Highlands were first colonized by the British in the 1920s. Today, the region has a population of more than 34,000, its largest ethnic groups being Malays, Chinese, and Indians.

Renowned for its trails, the Cameron Highlands incorporates a variety of terrain, from the emerald green hills of the plantations to dense jungle. With a year-round temperate climate rarely topping 77 degrees, the Cameron Highlands provide visitors with respite from the oppressive heat and humidity of the Malaysian summer. Trekking options are available for hikers of all abilities. Visitors are advised to hire a guide since some trails are poorly delineated in places.

Translating as “the original people,” the Orang Asli still inhabit nearby forests and jungles. Excursions depart from the town of Tanah Rata, enabling travelers to experience Orang Asli village life firsthand. You can even join these famous hunters as they stalk through the dense flora, bringing down prey with blowpipes and poison-tipped darts.

Spotlight on Clubhouse: What Is It and How Do You Join?

Touted as the next big thing, Clubhouse is an audio-based iPhone app that enables users to listen in on other users’ live conversations. Although the concept may sound sinister, the app only lets users listen in on people who want to be heard, such as celebrities or professionals. With Bill Gates and Elon Musk recently popping up in Clubhouse rooms, the app is currently enjoying a great deal of media attention.

Clubhouse Audio

As TechCrunch explains, spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, Clubhouse is leading a wave of new social media apps prioritizing performance streaming. The app was the brainchild of former Google engineer Rohan Seth and entrepreneur Paul Davison. Launched in April 2020, Clubhouse expanded its base to 1,500 by May. However, on almost its first anniversary, Clubhouse has been downloaded close to 13 million times.

In the app, there are no pictures or videos, just a profile picture for each user. In addition to listening in on conversations, users are sometimes allowed to join chats. Although the developers do have an Android version in the works, Clubhouse is currently available only on iPhone. There are more Android users than iPhone users globally, but the developers plan to scale up slowly, indicating that in trying to do too much too soon, they run the risk of overloading the app’s servers.

How Do You Join Clubhouse?

Any iPhone user can download the app, provided they have received an invitation from another Clubhouse user. Every Clubhouse user can invite two new members, but they can earn the right to invite more people as they use the app. Anyone interested in Clubhouse could start by asking friends, seeking out a pay-it-forward invite chain, or even buying an invite on eBay.

Nevertheless, with Clubhouse attracting so much media attention, prospective users are vulnerable to scams. For example, a fake website presenting itself as Clubhouse for Android has already popped up, circulating a Trojan program that steals log-in details for more than 450 online services.

How Does Clubhouse Work?

With movement still curtailed by social-distancing policies in many countries worldwide, Clubhouse effectively has a captive audience. The platform provides virtual rooms for users to come together and discuss issues that resonate with them, whether it’s relationships, world affairs, technology, or pets.

Each room has a list of speakers, while the rest listen, as well as a moderator controlling who takes the floor and when. If a listener wishes to speak or ask a question, they virtually raise their hand. Clubhouse’s vast population of celebrity members include Ashton Kutcher, Jared Leto, Drake, and Oprah.

In its review, Glamour UK magazine describes the invite-only, audio-only social media platform as a mashup of Spotify, Zoom, and singing-competition show The X Factor. The magazine likens signing up to gaining entry to a VIP nightclub, enabling the lucky few (or rather, 3 million) “highly exclusive” members to enjoy thought-provoking conversations, talent shows, and ad hoc celebrity appearances from the comfort and safety of their own home—something of a priority right now. Straight out of Silicon Valley, Clubhouse enables users to eavesdrop on conversations that have already started or start a new one of their own.

Trialed in China for just a brief stint, Clubhouse is already banned there. According to reports from Bloomberg, the ban came after Chinese users started discussing sensitive topics such as China-Taiwan relations and the genocide of Uighur Muslims by the Chinese government.

Outside of China, Clubhouse is surging in popularity. As Glamour UK explains, it is like listening to a live podcast, but with the bonus of being able to contribute to the conversation, ask a question, or show off your singing skills. The app was used in tryouts for a forthcoming US tour of Dreamgirls. Glee star Amber Riley and Broadway actor Leroy Church judged auditions, while an audience of hundreds of thousands of users listened in.

Clubhouse is presented as a safe place for celebrities to answer questions from ordinary people, as well as a platform for showcasing talent, sharing stories, and presenting lectures. Conversations are live and cannot be recorded using the app, although there is always the possibility of participants being quoted on other social media platforms.

Within less than a year of the app going live, Clubhouse was valued at circa $100 million. Its founders indicate that there is much more room as they expand access, eventually making it available to all without an invite, including Android users. Elon Musk’s appearance on Clubhouse undoubtedly raised the fledgling social media app’s profile exponentially. However, the surge in demand left many would-be listeners out in the cold, forcing them onto pirate YouTube streams.

Off the Beaten Path: 3 Exciting Travel Destinations in Asia

From safaris and ancient sites to sprawling cities and vibrant nightlife, Asia offers something for every traveler, no matter what they may seek. With a relatively low cost of living in many countries, Asia has established an international reputation not just for its fascinating sites and endless natural beauty, but also its affordability. For those seeking something a little more exciting than a conventional vacation, we explore three unique Asian adventures.

1. Tagong, China

Located in China’s Sichuan Province, this tiny traditional Tibetan town enables visitors to experience a flavor of Tibetan culture without leaving the Chinese mainland. Although situated in China, Tagong’s friendly, welcoming inhabitants do not consider themselves Chinese or even accept that they live there, telling new arrivals, “Welcome to Tibet.”

With its monasteries and temples, travelers seeking a taste of the Tibetan way of life will not be disappointed with Tagong. Cycling, hiking, horseback riding, and even nomad homestays are all available.

Meanwhile, the Tagong Horse Festival, staged every summer on the hillside stretching in front of the town, draws visitors from all over. The valley echoes with the sound of thundering hooves and spectators’ cheers while daring horse-back riders perform deft acrobatics, including bending backward off their horses to pluck colorful scarves from the ground, snatching themselves up again just in time to steer away from the crowd.

Plus, each Tagong family sets up a tent at the event and prepares a variety of traditional fare, including yak cheese and meat, momos (dumplings), and fresh fruit, accompanied by assorted beverages such as tea and beer.

This Tibetan equivalent of the Superbowl is run by locals for locals. The Tagong Horse Festival is a celebration of ancient Tibetan culture, a nomadic way of life that relies heavily on horsepower.

2. Kamikochi, Japan

Surrounded by imposing mountains and found 1,500 meters above sea level, the valley of Kamikochi is famed throughout Japan for its beauty. The region was shaped by glacial activity over many thousands of years. Today, Kamikochi hosts a variety of events throughout the summer months, including the annual boat festival, where locals stage a parade of boat-shaped floats to celebrate the Azumi people, a seafaring tribe of people who fished.

Kamikochi is accessible only by bus. The valley effectively closes down for six months each year as vast snowfalls shut local roads from mid-November to mid-April. During the summertime, however, Kamikochi draws visitors from near and far.

The Kappa Bridge, located in the center of Kamikochi, is popular among travelers. This feat of engineering traverses the Azusa River and boasts impressive views of Mount Myojindake and the Hotaka Peaks, making it a popular spot for taking photos.

The Kappa Bridge also offers excellent views of Mount Yakedake, an extremely active volcano with a smoking crater. Following a local trail, visitors can try the strenuous hike to the 2,455-meter-high summit.

Taisho Pond, created when Mount Yakedake erupted in 1915, is speckled with stark tree skeletons, serving as a haunting reminder of the volcano’s ferocity. Encircled by lush green woodland and with Mount Yakedake reflected in its glassy surface, Taisho Pond is an area of immense natural beauty in the summertime.

3. Kirirom National Park, Cambodia            

Situated in the Phnom Sruoch District of Kampong Speu Province, Kirirom National Park covers more than 35,000 hectares (approx. 135 square miles) of the Elephant Mountains.

Meaning “Mountain of Joy,” Kirirom was named by a Cambodian king. Located several hundred meters above sea level, the park is on a plateau that comprises an unusually high elevation pine forest that forms the headwaters of several streams, providing the town of Kampong Speu with life-giving water.

Part of the Southwest Cluster Protected Areas, Kirirom National Park is famous for its breathtaking waterfalls as well as being home to an impressive array of endangered species. Taking a traditional ox-ride, visitors can see a variety of exciting wildlife, including sun bears, pileated gibbons, and elephants, with the occasional tiger.

Travelers are invited to take part in a variety of local activities, including foraging, orchid spotting, jungle trekking, mountain biking, kayaking, and swimming. Those interested in conservation can even join local park rangers on anti-poaching expeditions.

Situated adjacent to Kirirom National Park, the Chambok ecotourism site hosts travelers from all over the world, providing them with an unforgettable taste of local life. Here, travelers can enjoy lunch beside a waterfall, sampling traditional Khmer dishes prepared by local cooks using locally sourced produce.

Once the royal retreat of King Sihanouk, Kirirom National Park borders the Cardamon Mountains, its foot trails winding through the elevated pine forest, leading to cascading waterfalls, hilltop shrines, and cliffs for breathtaking views. A playground for the nation’s elite before the civil war, despite many lavish villas being destroyed by the Khmer Rouge, Kirirom is currently undergoing something of a revival, with new villas popping up and attracting wealthy individuals from across the globe.