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DEC 28, 2023

China disrupts massive crypto-related laundering operation

by CoinNess Global

While cryptocurrencies may be banned in China, crypto trading activity continues in some corners, nonetheless, sometimes through accessing overseas exchanges. With that, authorities recently uncovered a massive underground banking operation that exploited crypto trading platforms to evade local forex regulations.

$2.2 billion laundering operation

On Sunday, an account on popular Chinese social media platform WeChat run by China’s State Administration of Foreign Exchange (SAFE) published details of the $2.2 billion laundering operation bust.
Xu Xiao, the Inspector at the Qingdao Branch of the State Administration of Foreign Exchange, revealed that the scheme involved underground banks who purchased virtual currencies and then sold the virtual currencies through overseas trading platforms to obtain the foreign currency they needed. This process, he explained, completes the conversion of yuan and foreign currencies, constituting the illegal act of buying and selling foreign exchange.

Stringent capital controls

China enforces stringent rules on money transfers outside the country. Citizens are limited to exchanging up to $50,000 in foreign currency and require a permit for transactions beyond that limit. Any transaction exceeding the limit without a permit is considered money laundering.
During a recent investigation, authorities seized cryptocurrencies valued at approximately $28,000 in Tether, Litecoin and other digital currencies. However, the operation is estimated to have facilitated the movement of over $2.2 billion, involving more than a thousand bank accounts across 17 provinces and municipalities.

Monetary control loopholes

China, once the largest cryptocurrency market, imposed a comprehensive ban on crypto exchanges in September 2017 and subsequently expanded its restrictions to include crypto mining and trading. Despite these measures, reports have surfaced about underground crypto exchange operations. Earlier this year, an investigative report by the Wall Street Journal found that global exchange Binance continues to do thriving business with Chinese customers.
Global crypto exchanges are reportedly still onboarding Chinese clients indirectly. The South China Morning Post (SCMP) recently accused Binance of facilitating Chinese crypto trading accounts by falsely claiming they are from Taiwan.
While mainland China adopts a hostile stance towards cryptocurrencies, the special administrative region of Hong Kong remains progressive in the sector. Hong Kong’s regulatory authorities have introduced specific rules for cryptocurrencies and are licensing crypto exchanges operating within the jurisdiction.
Arthur Hayes, the co-founder of the BitMEX crypto derivatives platform, recently described Hong Kong as the gateway for mainland China to global capital markets. Hayes asserted that wealthy Chinese individuals all bank in Hong Kong and with that, they all have access to crypto exchanges and brokers. In Cambodia, it is understood that illicit Chinese-linked activities oftentimes implicate the use of U.S. dollar stablecoin Tether (USDT) to move funds in and out of China even though Tether is banned in Cambodia.
The latest crackdown in China underscores the ongoing challenges faced by authorities in controlling crypto-related activities, highlighting the dynamic nature of such activity within and adjacent to mainland China. As regulatory scrutiny intensifies, the contrast between mainland China’s approach and Hong Kong’s more open stance toward cryptocurrencies becomes increasingly evident.
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