China is testing its digital currency on a new platform—with 500 million users


Chinese ride-hailing giant Didi Chuxing Technology Co. will test a pilot version of China’s digital currency, according to a company statement on Wednesday that announced a “strategic partnership” with the central bank’s Digital Currency Research Institute.

The People’s Bank of China (PBOC), China’s central bank, has been researching a national digital currency known as Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DCEP) since 2014 and ramped up its efforts to roll it out last year.

The launch date and other specifics of the Didi project are not publicly known.

Didi’s huge customer base, existing digital payment infrastructure, and range of services make it an ideal platform for the digital currency’s biggest trial so far. Didi has more than 550 million users worldwide, most of them in China; it claims more than 90% of China’s ride-hailing market.

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Didi is often described as “China’s Uber,” but its services are broader than private car ride-hailing. It offers taxi-hailing, carpooling, freight transport, delivery, and logistics services, and has an autonomous driving subsidiary that received over $500 million in funding in May for testing and development.

Launching the currency on the Didi mobile app would automatically place the payment system directly in the pockets of half a billion Chinese citizens. Since Didi offers food and merchant delivery services as well as car- and taxi-hailing, the currency could be trialled across those sectors, too.

Didi has been eyeing an expansion into digital payments since at least April, when Tony Qiu, chief operating officer for Didi’s international operation, told Reuters that “acquiring and working with payment companies which have the banking license, payment or financial technologies would bring advantages to Didi’s global business.” Qiu did not elaborate on what those advantages were.

The PBOC’s pilot program with Didi will be one of the first real-world rollouts of China’s digital currency. A district in the Chinese city of Suzhou used the currency in May to pay public sector workers part of their travel subsidies. Food outlets, including McDonald’s and Starbucks, were included in a PBOC list of firms scheduled to test the digital payment for small transactions in a new city being built near Beijing, according to an unconfirmed local media report in April.

The digital currency will be backed and issued by China’s central bank. When it’s launched, customers will be able to link their bank card to a PBOC app that will let them convert the yuan in their bank account to digital yuan, the South China Morning Post reported in May. People without bank accounts will also be able to set up digital currency wallets.

Currently, users can pay for Didi services through Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, both digital wallets. It’s not yet known whether the digital currency would be distributed to Didi users through these existing digital wallets or via a separate central bank wallet, but existing reliance on such wallets means consumers are primed to make digital payments.

Since its founding in 2012, Didi has beaten out competition—merging with local rivals and acquiring Uber China—to emerge as China’s primary ride-hailing app and on-demand transportation service. Didi is one of China’s biggest tech companies, with financial backing from Apple Inc., Alibaba Group, Tencent Holdings, and Japan’s SoftBank Group. It has an estimated valuation of around $53 billion.

Didi’s daily passenger numbers dropped early this year as coronavirus lockdowns swept across China and people stayed in their homes. The company worked hard to bring customers back, and invested over $14 million to install protective plastic dividers in its millions of cars to prevent the spread of the virus and ensure passenger safety. Didi’s chief executive in early June said hailing requests that month had returned to the level of the same period the year before.

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