Asia is home to over half the world’s population, not to mention a large number of its fastest-growing economies and busiest financial centers.
In terms of funding and business activity, the Asian bitcoin scene is dominated by its most advanced economies: China, South Korea, Japan, Hong Kong and Singapore. The region is home to more than 50 countries and jurisdictions with diverse conditions and financial needs.
In theory, this should be bitcoin’s land of milk and honey.
However, Asia’s economic and political diversity is both an advantage and disadvantage, and there are still plenty of wrinkles to be ironed out before the region’s cumulative talent is unlocked and potential realized.
Let’s take a look at Asia’s major news stories of 2014: the good, the not-so-good, the innovative and unusual.
China: In or out?
The nation is also home to the world’s highest-volume bitcoin exchanges – their fee-free models and exotic trading products enticing both human and automated speculators.
When questions are raised about the source of bitcoin’s value and volatility, the answer is often one-word: “China”.
China was often erroneously said to have banned and unbanned bitcoin in 2014, though it is important to note that at no point was bitcoin officially outlawed, nor did local businesses lose access to all banking facilities.
Things were far from smooth sailing, however. Comments from the People’s Bank of China in December 2013 coincided with the beginning of bitcoin’s price decline from its $1,100+ heights, a downward trend that has continued all year.
Occasional news hoaxes about bans, from unknown sources, only added to the official opaqueness.
In the darkest days of China’s 2014, around April, some banks did begin closing the accounts of bitcoin businesses and both bitcoin exchanges and the local media withdrew hurriedly from China’s first bitcoin conference in Beijing in May.
CEOs from China’s five most prominent bitcoin exchanges: OKCoin, Huobi, BTC China, BtcTrade and CHBTC, issued a joint statement promising they would no longer encourage excessive speculation in digital assets and would report new industry developments to the authorities.
Then, almost mysteriously, regulatory activity seemed to melt away.
In the latter half of 2014, big-name Chinese bitcoin exchanges gained more attention by focusing on markets outside China and continued to grow. OKCoin and Huobi launched USD exchanges registered in Singapore and Hong Kong respectively, and BTC China continued to offer its range of services in English.
Both OKCoin and Huobi held lavish events in Beijing to celebrate the fact that they were still around, and going strong.
Chinese companies raced to introduce new products and features to attract new customers from the professional finance industry, including margin and futures trading, and P2P lending to support trading or mining hardware projects.
Some initially speculated that bitcoin’s popularity in China was due to wealthy Chinese looking to move their money into offshore investments, though experts have disagreed, and recent liberalization of China’s capital controls may have led investors to look at other asset classes.
Japan: Professional competition
Professional bitcoin services began emerging in the first half of the year, with strong local market knowledge, seven-figure venture capital backing and consumer-friendly promotion campaigns.
Exchanges BitFlyer ($1.8m-plus investment raised) and Quoine ($2m-plus raised) were launched by founders with years of experience in the Japanese offices of international finance giants, and Kraken launched its long-awaited Japan office in October.
Payment processor/exchanges Coincheck and Bitbank ($1.4m raised) also competed with BitFlyer for the consumer trading and merchant payment markets, signing up both bricks-and-mortar and online businesses.
BitFlyer’s partnership with online services company GMO opened it up to over 48,000 online merchants. Additionally, its accompanying consumer rewards scheme through GMO subsidiary PointTown allowed users to withdraw in bitcoin, while BitBank started its own program called BitcoinGET.
Bitcoin in Japan was aided by one of the world’s most digital currency-friendly politicians, Mineyuki Fukuda, who retained a seat in Japan’s December national election.
The government MP and head of its IT strategy committee met with industry representatives at his parliamentary office and at meetups, crowdfunded a bitcoin research tour of the US and was instrumental in forming Japan’s first digital currency industry liaison group, the Japan Association of Digital Asset (JADA).
Mt Gox: The never-ending story
Unfortunately for Japan, it seems no story can exist without at least a passing reference to Mt Gox – this is as true for Japan’s local media as it is for bitcoin sites.
It’s almost hard to imagine that a year ago, Mt Gox was still a going concern, instructing users to “trade with confidence” on its “secure” platform. The rest is history: a hard shutdown, protests, various claims of hacking, bugs and thefts, and a protracted claims process that has left creditors with little hope they will ever see their money again.
Over the course of the year, there were attempts to resurrect the brand by Chinese companies OKCoin and BitOcean, and a consortium of US investors called Sunlot Holdings. However, facing legal challenges, creditors’ objections and Mt Gox’s fast-dwindling brand value, all eventually abandoned their plans.
Mt Gox’s CEO Mark Karpeles remains in the gilded cage of his Tokyo penthouse apartment, not facing any charges related to the losses, yet seemingly unable to leave the country.
Bankruptcy trustee Nobuaki Kobayashi has allowed him to continue operating his web services business Tibanne and also permitted that company to be paid from Gox’s remaining funds, in the hope that it will someday make enough money to pay back out-of-pocket customers.
South Korea: The quiet achiever
The Republic of Korea’s bitcoin startups are concerned mainly with the domestic market, and as such are often overlooked by the international media. Despite this, they managed to outdo their Japanese counterparts in 2014 in investment terms.
Exchange and payment processor Coinplug raised a total of $3.3m by the end of the year, while competitor Korbit received at least $3m. Korbit claimed in August it had already signed up 25,000 individual and 400 merchant customers.
Coinplug’s July deal with payments giant Galaxia Communications opened its business to potentially over 10,000 e-commerce websites. The company also developed and launched one of the first bitcoin ATMs, produced by the largest bank machine manufacturer outside the US, Nautilus Hyosung.
Digital currency also had plenty of time in the Korean spotlight in 2014, starting with the Winklevoss twins’ appearance at tech startup conference beLAUNCH.
Seoul hosted its first bitcoin conference in December, while local industry representatives arranged special sessions for bitcoin at the huge World Knowledge Forum and Korea University’s Bitcoin Expo.
Singapore and Hong Kong: Startup cities
Asia’s two international city-states are also its leading financial centers, placing them both firmly on bitcoin’s radar as places to watch.
While itBit decided to shift its primary headquarters to New York to capture a share of the US-based trading market, Singapore remains a focal point for bitcoin with its own regulators promising this year not to “stifle innovation”.
Another headline grabber was Temasek, the Singapore government-owned investment company with a $172bn portfolio. In June, its chairman Lim Boon Heng announced the firm had been conducting a “bitcoin experiment“, supplying its staff with bitcoin wallets and a small amount of coins for donation to their preferred charities.
Hong Kong has also looked promising as an exchange center, helped mostly by its business-friendly legal and political environment, and ability to attract large numbers of customers from mainland China.
ANX also grew, acquiring and reviving troubled Norwegian exchange Justcoin in November, and launching a bitcoin-to-ATM-debit card that allows users to load cards directly from their ANX bitcoin balances.
Southeast Asia emerges
Countries in the ASEAN region also got off to a shaky start in late 2013 and 2014, with central bank representatives in Vietnam and Thailand suggesting bitcoin’s non-legal tender status may render its use illegal.
Common sense has prevailed and local companies have since managed to establish trust channels with authorities in both those countries, keeping exchanges open and connected to banking services.
By August, Vietnamese state TV had even broadcast a report examining the curiosity and issues surrounding bitcoin.
While bitcoin’s legal status was never really questioned in Indonesia, local proponents like Oscar Darmawan of Bitcoin Indonesia have engaged with local regulators to ensure everything remains above board.
His company has also been involved with one project to allow the public to buy and sell bitcoins over the counter at 10,000 convenience stores, and another called ‘Bali BitIslands‘, which over the course of 2014 has begun turning the tourist island of Bali into a bitcoin haven, one business at a time.
The Philippines inspires new use cases
Having noted the up to 13.5 million Filipinos living abroad and the $23bn they sent home in 2013, startups Rebit.ph and Coins.ph have devoted their energies to building bitcoin-based remittance services to rival the over-the-counter and paper form experiences that familiar to Pinoy expats.
India: Plenty of potential
Despite starting the year amid regulatory uncertainty, the nation’s digital currency businesses have since been allowed to grow and take their message to the public.
BTCX India CEO Kamesh Mupparaju said:
“We are very much looking forward to 2015 and believe this will be the year that bitcoin goes large in India.”
Vishal Gupta of the Bitcoin Alliance of India has held seminars before hundreds of Indian university students, saying he was impressed by the level of knowledge demonstrated. Awareness of digital currencies was also on display during a TV interview with central bank governor Raghuram Rajan just last week.
There has even been positive bitcoin coverage in the Indian media, which suggested that bitcoin might be a worthy token for those facing difficulties acquiring gold.
After a year packed with largely positive developments in the region, one can only look forward to what the combination of bitcoin and the huge Asian market will bring in 2015.
Asian business image via Shutterstock