Today, we’re going to be doing something a bit different. You’re unlikely to find an article like this anywhere else on the web. We are going to tell the stories of three cryptocurrency exchanges and their exits from the Chinese market.
First of all, here’s what happened in China.
Chinese Crypto Ban Timeline
- 2013: The Chinese Government defines Bitcoin as a virtual commodity, allowing its trade online
- 2013: Financial regulators and the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) ban banks, financial institutions, and payment companies from providing Bitcoin-related services
- Sept 2013: China bans Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs), fiat-to-crypto, and crypto-to-fiat transactions in general, citing fears speculative crypto trading would lead to more risk and loss
- July 2018: Chinese firms are suffering, with 88 crypto trading platforms and 85 ICO platforms either closing or leaving the country. The new regulations push many Chinese towards cryptocurrency mining operations
- 2020: Chinese miners are providing 65% of the global Bitcoin hash rate, due to cheap coal-fired energy. Regulators decide to ban crypto mining, forcing thousands to flee to the country to continue their Bitcoin mining operations
- April 2021: The Chinese Government announces it is testing the e-RMB, a digital currency representing the Chinese Yuan to be issued by the central bank. Speculators ask whether the tide may be changing once again
- June 2021: China reiterates the original ban and expands its scope, affecting Bitcoin miners, traders and investors alike
- June 2021: BTCC, the longest-running Bitcoin exchange in China, announces it has ceased trading entirely
Knowing the above, here’s how we chose which Chinese companies to research.
Why These Exchanges?
Diving Deeper Into Our Winners
Shanghai native Changpeng Zhao was out for dinner with Da Hongfei, founder of Neo, and Kris Marszalek, founder of Crypto.com. This was June 14th, 2017, a few months before China’s crypto ban shocked the world. Over a delicious meal in Chengdu, they talked about Initial Coin Offerings (ICOs) and how good ideas were raising millions for startups through this model. Zhao already had plans to build his own crypto-to-crypto exchange, but now he had a way to raise the capital.
Changpeng Zhao and Da Hongfei at the Blockshow Asia in 2019
After the meal, Zhao headed home and put together a whitepaper in English and Chinese. The exchange was built on BijieTech’s cloud software (where Zhao worked before Binance). If you’re curious what Binance means, it’s a hybrid of “Binary” and “Finance,” the words representing digital currency and traditional currency.
Eighteen days after that dinner, Zhao had raised $15m, and three weeks after that, the native BNB Coin launched, losing 20% of its value immediately, to investors’ surprise. The start of Binance was rocky until Yi He joined as co-founder and CMO. She was the catalyst, with BNB’s price rocketing from the day she joined, climbing almost 2,000% in the first fortnight. Optimism was seeping through their small Shanghai office, but it wouldn’t last long.
On the 4th of September in 2017, China’s Central Bank announced an immediate and strict ban on ICO funding, stating that it had “seriously disrupted the economic and financial order.” At the same time, 60 exchanges were frozen, with fears of money laundering, scams, and even financing terrorism cited as reasons for the ban. Chinese investors had contributed $383m of the $1.6bn raised via ICO in 2017 up to that point, making the financial authorities rightly nervous.
Binance had to move, and it had to move quickly. The thing is, digital businesses may operate from an office, but the business itself all lives in the Cloud, on the internet. So for Binance to relocate, they first had to migrate over to Amazon Web Servers (AWS), away from Chinese-owned Alibaba. Next, they left physically, moving to Japan, where Zhao had worked on the Tokyo Stock Exchange and had basic language skills. However, Japan was a bit of a non-starter, with their strict financial regulations forcing the team to move once again. So that is how they ended up on the tech-disrupting Mediterranean island of Malta.
Except, nobody moved to Malta. Binance instead decentralized, letting their employees work remotely or in their small offices in more than ten countries. The company is registered in the Cayman Islands, Seychelles, and Malta. Since the dust settled and they got back to work, Binance has become the world’s biggest and most powerful exchange, many times larger than their competitors. A happy ending.
- No fancy NY office, no Silicon Valley campus, and no high-rise facility overlooking London. The team is decentralized, described as an “underground rebellion”
- Officially based in the Cayman Islands, Seychelles, and Malta, mostly for tax and licensing reasons
- Due to China’s censorship laws, Binance (along with rivals OKEx and Huobi) can not be found on Chinese internet services (without a VPN)
- The founder, Changpeng Zhao, is a Chinese-Canadian entrepreneur who worked for the Tokyo Stock Exchange, before moving to Shanghai to start ‘Fusion Systems’, a high-frequency trading tool for brokers. He later went on to be the CTO of OKCoin and Bijie, before leaving to start Binance
- Binance’s decentralized project ‘Binance Smart Chain’ has been the second-biggest contribution to the DeFi industry, behind Ethereum
- Binance typically processes over $30 billion worth of trades a day, with over 380 cryptocurrencies and 1,380+ market pairs listed on the site
- To escape China, after months of rumours of a government crackdown, meant first migrating from Alibaba over to Amazon Web Servers (AWS). Once the migration was complete, the team fled Shanghai as quickly as possible
Why Gate.io’s Relocation Forced a Rebrand
Gate’s story offers the drama of a different kind. Lin Han, the CEO of Bter.com, launched his project in 2013, and it quickly became one of the more popular exchanges in China, embracing growing trading volumes in a burgeoning market. But, unfortunately, in 2015, the good times ended with a cold wallet hack of 7,170 Bitcoins. Typically exchange hacks steal from hot wallets, so this means that Gate’s own personal security had lapsed for their offline storage to be exploited.
Worth around $1.75 million at the time of the hack, Bitcoin was on the rise, and Gate didn’t have the funds to compensate the victims. By the time China banned crypto in September 2017, the price of Bitcoin had risen to $4,500, bringing their debt to over $32 million. The deflationary nature of Bitcoin, combined with China’s crypto ban, saw the end of Bter.com, and the hack victims were never reunited with their stolen Bitcoin.
Tina Yuan, CEO of Gate Korea
In late 2017, Gate.io was born, with most of the same team from Bter.com behind it and a prominent new face to support Lin Han. Tina Yuan would be the CEO of Gate Korea and Asia Pacific Vice President. Together they dissolved the original business, decentralized their new operations, and popped up with offices in Malta, the Cayman Islands, the US, and South Korea. Less than two years later, they fundraised $64m by selling Gate Points (1 point = $1) to help build and launch Gate Tokens (GT), which has a market cap of over $250m as of August 2021. The exchange is on the up.
- Gate’s story is quite different from Binance since launching in 2013 as Bter.com
- Following a hack of 7,170 Bitcoins in 2015, the exchange’s reputation was tarnished, and while they were figuring out how to pay back their Chinese traders, China banned cryptocurrency, forcing Gate to disperse, relocate, regroup, and rebrand
- Gate.io decentralized its operations, setting up offices in Malta, the Cayman Islands, the US (Illinois), and Seoul (South Korea)
- Victims of the 2015 hack, worth around $1.75m at the time, had to witness Bitcoin’s price rise, whilst finding out that Bter.com would close, not pay them back, and then relaunch under a new name
- It was both brave and unpopular of the Bter.com team to relocate and start Gate.io, however, they learned from their mistakes
- In April 2019, in just 7 days, the team raised $64m to build and launch Gate Tokens (GT), a utility token designed to offer improved services and fees on the platform. GT was released almost a year later, in March 2020
- In 2020, Gate’s team announced that they had completed an industry-first “Proof of Collateral” audit, essentially proving that the total amount they had in the bank was equal to users’ assets held on the platform
- Gate.io had to work hard to improve its reputation, and it has done so, with excellent services, increased security, and the widest selection of cryptocurrencies and trading pairs in the world. Users love it, it’s fast, it’s fluid, and it is developing and providing services related to DeFi, staking, and lending
- Gate has renewed its reputation among blockchain technology projects too, becoming seen as one of the go-to platforms for any startup looking to get their coin or token listed on a major exchange
Huobi’s Exit Without Exiting
Huobi is one of China’s former ‘Big Three’ crypto exchanges, BTCC (recently defunct) and OKCoin (which also escaped China). However, unlike Binance, which fled overnight, and Gate.io, which reinvented itself, Huobi took the slower and more reasonable approach, working with Chinese authorities to bring about a smooth transition. The main reason for this is that Huobi reportedly has very close ties to the Chinese Communist Party.
Leon Li, Founder of Huobi
Leon Li, the founder, enjoys high levels of access to China’s central bank, thanks to his engagement and cooperation with government officials. Binance, OKEx, OKCoin, and Gate.io upset Chinese regulators with their behavior, but Huobi chose to build a bridge. They are helping to develop the country’s first state-backed blockchain platform and have set up an in-house Communist Party committee. In short, Huobi and Li played the government’s game.
Unfortunately for users, the compromise for Huobi was the implementation of a “regulator node,” which gives the government access to all on-chain Huobi data. No other exchange in the world has done this (due to privacy concerns). However, Huobi aims to compromise fully and partner with the Chinese state, with Li wanting to be seen as a leader in Blockchain history by helping to develop the e-RMB with the Chinese central bank. China’s long-term goal is crypto supremacy, not crypto-suppression. In 2021, Huobi is making that happen, thriving in their own way.
- Founded in 2013 by Leon Li, a former Oracle engineer
- Huobi quickly found popularity in the early Chinese Bitcoin trading market, way before the Chinese authorities and China Banking Association got involved in this industry
- In September 2017, Chinese law put a stop to the growing crypto industry and aimed to take down local cryptocurrency exchanges, halting the speculative market for trading digital currencies. Huobi immediately announced it would close based on the China-issued orders and warned investors that they would have less than two months to leave the platform
- Within one month, Huobi has opened an office in Seoul and was quickly transitioning into a more friendly financial system and market
- Another month later, moving further away from Chinese government control and meddling industry bodies, Huobi opened their Singapore premises
- A few weeks later, their Tokyo office opened, and three months later by March 2018, they began business in the United States and Hong Kong, giving them access to a total of five countries. In November 2020, they launched in Malaysia too
- 2017 and early 2018 were incredibly busy periods for Leon and the Huobi team, within which they rebranded as Huobi Global after entering new markets, and migrated over to Huobi.pro (based in Singapore). At the same time, they began breaking the company down into smaller parts to make it more resilient to change:
- Huobi Labs
- Huobi Asset Management
- Huobi Technology Holdings
- Huobi Capital
- Huobi Mining Pool
- Huobi Pro
- Huobit OTC
- Huobi Ecology
- Huobi Capital
- Huobi Academy
- Huobi Labuan
- In November 2020, having virtually transitioned business operations out of China, with some defunct departments still listed there, disaster struck as the COO, Zhu Jiawei was arrested. The same day, $350m worth of Bitcoin left the platform, again highlighting the Chinese state’s role in the market
- Huobi announced in June 2021 that new restrictions meant they could no longer offer derivative products, such as Futures and ETPs. Despite crypto being banned in China, this warning was mainly aimed at Chinese users accessing the platform via VPN
- July 22, 2021 saw Huobi finally and officially leave China as an exchange, dissolving the last remaining entity of the business, “Beijing Huobi Tianxia Network Technology Company”
Chinese crypto exchanges which didn’t survive the purge
That sums up the top exchanges that pivoted and created success despite their early beginnings in China. Get started with our number one pick now. And as always, best of luck out there!