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Blockchain is a surprisingly hot topic at China’s annual political gathering

Thousands of China’s elites are currently gathered in Beijing for the “two sessions,” the annual meetings for members the National People’s Congress (or NPC, China’s rubber-stamp legislative branch) and the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (or CPPCC, a non-legislative advisory body).

This year, much of the attention is focused on president Xi Jinping’s proposal to lift the term limits for the posts of president and vice president, which would pave the way for his indefinite rule and further consolidate his power. Beyond politics, however, the two sessions are also a time for China’s business leaders, many of whom are delegates to the bodies, to draw the Chinese leadership’s attention to business issues.

This year, as noted by Chinese media outlet Guancha (link in Chinese), several tech moguls attending this year’s meetings sang the praises of blockchain—a technology China’s consumers and startups have embraced, but that Beijing has looked on with relative ambivalence.

At a media briefing on Mar. 3, Pony Ma, CEO of tech titan Tencent and a delegate to the NPC, told reporters that he remained cautious about initial coin offerings (ICOs) and digital currencies. “An ICO for digital currency… I think this is a huge risk,” he said, according to Tencent’s transcript of the briefing. “If everyone carelessly makes their own currency, this will create a large problem for regulators. For now, what we can say is although it’s very hot, we haven’t participated, and haven’t considered releasing our own currency.” Ma added, however, that he’s optimistic about blockchain’s potential for document and identify verification, as well as ensuring that digital files can’t be duplicated or tampered with. “Right now everyone is fixated on digital currency. I think we first need to resolve these problems before blockchain will advance.”

Other tech leaders and politicians chimed in on blockchain as well. William Ding, CEO of game maker NetEase, reiterated Ma’s sentiments, telling reporters (link in Chinese) that blockchain must first be popularized in other domains before it takes off in finance. “The application scenarios [for blockchain] are vast and abundant, one is smart contracts, another is bioinformatic verification, and this will resolve problems of personal trust. Once the problem of trust is resolved, we can then promote development in the field of finance, like borrowing and receiving money.”

Yao Jinbo, CEO of 58.com, a Craigslist-esque classifieds site, took a more cautionary tone. “We’ve been looking at blockchain since early on, but we’ve never taken action and have only investigated it seriously in the last half year,” he said, according to the Beijing Morning Post (link in Chinese). He added that the financial risk from entrepreneurs hastily issuing new coins of their own could create financial risk, and perhaps hinder the development of blockchain overall.

Other high-profile business leaders, including Robin Li of search giant Baidu and Zhou Hongyi of security software maker Qihoo 360 also discussed the importance (link in Chinese) of blockchain in media interviews during the sessions.

Over the past year, China’s government has cracked down on bitcoin trading, bitcoin mining, and ICOs. But those short-term measures, enacted amid a speculative frenzy, belie Beijing’s longer-term commitment to fostering blockchain and all of its uses. In May last year, the People’s Bank of China announced it would work on developing its own digital currency. China’s State Council, or cabinet, also briefly mentioned blockchain in its 13th Five-Year Plan on Informatization in 2016.

China’s top lawmakers have so far given less attention to blockchain than to AI, on which they published an ambitious policy roadmap in July (paywall). Following the political signaling at this year’s two sessions, a similar roadmap for blockchain may well arrive soon.

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