Meet the millennials making big money riding China’s bitcoin wave

The cryptocurrency may have no physical form but the returns from trading it can be very real and for some theyre worth giving up your job for

On a sunny afternoon in west Beijing, on the auspicious eighth floor of a nondescript concrete high-rise, Huai Yang sits with the curtains drawn in his apartment, making his own luck.

For the past six months, 27-year-old Yang has worked mainly from home, mainly from his sofa, tracking and trading bitcoin, and watching the money roll in. The flat itself is modestly sized; Yang moved in in his pre-bitcoin days when he worked variously for a crowdfunder start-up, a branding consultancy and dabbled in hedge-fund management, all of which he describes as creative financial work. Now, though, his main focus is bitcoin, which is much younger, more fun, and much more money. Yang claims to make up to 1m yuan (116,000) a month, under the radar of the taxman, purely from trading the online cryptocurrency.

Bitcoin has no physical form but the rewards are very tangible; Yangs home is packed full of expensive gadgetry, most prominently a mega-sized flat screen smart board, over a metre wide, which Yang uses to chart bitcoins rise and fall in HD.

Normally, the graphs on Yangs screen show bitcoins and his own fortunes going up and up. At the time of writing, one bitcoin is worth 6,600 yuan (768) recent months have seen the value hover well above 8,000 yuan. The global worth of bitcoin is over $14bn USD (11.3bn), of which over 90% is in yuan, and Yang and his peers are cashing in. I want a more splendid life, he says.

Huai
Huai Yang, who trades bitcoin from his sofa Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

Theres certainly big money to be made in bitcoin, but it comes at a high risk. Bitcoin was designed to be a peer-to-peer currency, free from interference from government and central banks. Since the currency was launched in 2009, however, the Chinese market, where government interventions are common, has come to dwarf all others.

One such intervention took place in February this year, when the government warned that there would be serious violations for trading platforms that failed to abide by strict money-laundering regulations. In line with this, OKCoin and Huobi.com, the two biggest exchanges in China, announced that they would be suspending bitcoin withdrawals for one month.

Incidents like these, which Yang sees as not convenient, but not [a] problem, give Chenxing (who asked that I only use his first name) pause for thought. Chenxing, a boyish, skittish 35, has been trading bitcoin for the past four months, after giving up his too comfortable job as a geo-information engineer for the government. The governments pressure on bitcoin platforms is not so easy to understand, he tells me. Im not sure its really about money laundering they try to control [bitcoin], but they cannot.

For Chenxing, its the system itself that is vulnerable: Technology changes every day, he explains. Maybe tomorrow a hacker can find a way to crack bitcoin the security is from mathematics. If you can crack the mathematics, bitcoin is nothing. Thats why, even though Chenxing describes himself as a believer in bitcoin, he doesnt plan to stay involved for the long term.

Its really not a stable thing, he says, both in terms of fluctuating prices and the uncertain technological future of the cryptocurrency. That said, hes still making more money than in his previous government job. In a good month, Chenxing will pocket the cash value of around five bitcoin, which is close to 40,000 yuan, and which Chenxing prefers to have in cold, hard cash.

Chenxing is something of an anomaly in Chinese bitcoin circles, where the general mood is one of evangelical faith in the currencys potential, especially in an economy where the government often devalues the national currency.

Brendan Gibson, 32, is a United States national who has been in China for six years, trading bitcoin for three. Weve barely sat down to talk when Gibson takes my phone and downloads the BTC Wallet app onto it, before transferring me the seeds of my cryptocurrency fortune: 0.0027 bitcoin, worth 2.50, which is the amount that everyone in the world would have if the 21m bitcoin in existence were equally divided up between all 7.8 billion of us. He believes that everybodys aunt or grandma should be using bitcoin.

Brendan
Brendan Gibson: Im just kind of fed up with the system. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

For Gibson, bitcoin is a way of life. He hopes to be completely bank free in the near future. Hailing from the shady mortgage industry of corporate America, Gibson shares Chenxings distrustful attitude, but is more concerned about private banks than bitcoins technological vulnerability. Im just kind of fed up with the system, he tells me over coffee in a slick caf and co-working space from where Gibson does most of his work remotely.

I dont think economies should be built on inflated numbers, and I think its kind of ridiculous that everybody relies on this inflated number in their bank account when its definitely not there bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are making it so that we are our own banks, and thats one less things we have to worry about. Gibson owns two companies in China, and as far as possible uses bitcoin for all his daily expenses, converting the personal profits he makes into bitcoin to avoid using banks.

One of the commonly cited weaknesses in the bitcoin system is that if you lose your private key to access your bitcoin wallet, the bitcoin within are lost forever. In 2015, it was estimated that up to 30% of all mined bitcoins had been lost, with a value of 625m. Unsurprisingly, plenty of people see this as an opportunity to make some money.

Sun Zeyu, 27, works at a tech start-up based near Beijings university district that specialises in bitcoin. His latest project is Coldlar, an offline, physical wallet that stores users bitcoin and can be accessed by scanning a QR code. Bitcoin security is a tough question, Sun tells me, which is why he and his colleagues designed a product that allows people to circumvent bitcoin platforms and have even greater control over their bitcoin. Now that the value [of bitcoin] is going up, he explains, people really realise the importance of security.

Before, when we just traded one or two coins, people didnt mind, [but] now the value of bitcoin is much bigger. Sun got involved with bitcoin while at university after attending a seminar run by Huobi, one of the biggest trading platforms in China. Like his flashier friend Yang, Sun wanted money, and lots of it. He wont tell me exactly how much he earns, but assures me that its hundreds or thousands times more than the 10,000 yuan per month he was earning when he first dabbled in bitcoin three years ago.

His money comes from both his trading activity and his company salary. With the growth of bitcoin and related products like his Coldlar wallet, Sun believes that in 10 years time, the value of the cryptocurrency will be one bitcoin, one house in Beijing. Minor shocks to the system, like the recent suspension of bitcoin withdrawals in China, are just like breathing, he insists, and the inhalations of profit dwarf any other bumps in the road.

Sun
Sun Zeyu at work. Photograph: Naomi Goddard for the Guardian

Despite the solitary nature of their work, Yang, Sun, Gibson and Chenxing are all sociable creatures. Gibson is connected to hundreds of bitcoin aficionados in China, and has introduced close to 1,000 new people to the technology (although how many are like me, with 2.50 lying dormant in an unused wallet, is unknown), such is his enthusiasm for the cryptocurrency. Chenxing cites the social side of the bitcoin scene in Beijing as one of the main attractions of staying in the industry and the city.

I can meet some fun people who really love bitcoin I think most of the people who like bitcoin are people who like freedom he says. Yang, however, takes a slightly harder-edged approach. He has little patience for sceptics: Yes, bitcoin is a risk. Why should I have to discuss these things with [people concerned about the security]? I earn my money, thats enough. I dont waste my time explaining bitcoin [if] youre not my client. In some ways, Yang concedes, the less people understand bitcoin, the better it is for him. At the moment, the industry is like an ATM for him and his peers, and hes perfectly happy for things to stay that way.

In the fast-changing world of the crypto-currency, nothing seems to stay the same for long. Whether its unpredictable government interventions, or debates within the community about how the industry can and should be scaled, general growth in value thus fair doesnt necessarily suggest anything about the future of bitcoin, despite the faith of its adherents. Gibson makes the point that bitcoin has only been around for nine years; it took PayPal at least 10 to properly catch on.

In Japan it has recently been recognised as legal tender. Its unlikely that the same could ever happen in China, no matter how much its popularity continues to balloon. Chenxing, who has years of insider experience, is sure that [the government] will never accept a thing thats not built by themselves. Many bitcoin traders in China are in it for the long haul, confident that they can ride out any governmental interferences, as long as they have access to the internet. Chenxing, however, is more paranoid. His final thoughts on bitcoin are: I never feel secure.

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Ripple: cryptocurrency enjoys end-of-year surge – but will it endure?

Ripple, also known as XRP, peaks at more than $100bn and surpasses Ethereum to become second most valuable cryptocurrency after bitcoin

If 2017 was the year of bitcoin, the pioneering cryptocurrency that neared $20,000 in December, will 2018 be the year of Ripple?

The market value of Ripple, also known as XRP, rose more than 50% on Friday, to a record $85bn. Ripple continued to climb over the weekend, peaking at over $100bn, and now surpasses Ethereum ($72bn) as the second most valuable cryptocurrency after bitcoin ($237bn).

Friday’s sharp run-up puts the currency on track to have risen in value by more than 35,000% over the course of 2017. It began the year trading at around $0.006 and now sits at $2.25, according to coinmarketcap.com. Just three weeks ago, the currency was trading at 25¢.

According to Bloomberg, Ripple’s gains in 2017 have far outpaced the gains of Ethereum and bitcoin, which have gained roughly 9,000 and 1,400% year-to-date, respectively.

Ripple’s CEO, Brad Garlinghouse, said on Twitter on Sunday: “Proud to be ending 2017 with incredible momentum on a number of fronts! A huge, heartfelt thank you to the amazing @Ripple team, our great partners and an incredibly supportive $XRP community.”

The gains come as Ripple has made steps to establish itself as a coherent currency used by institutions. Established in 2012 and designed for interbank payments and settlements, Ripple has articulated a vision to ease the intense volatility experienced by other cryptocurrencies by establishing the structured sale and use of its currency.

The company has more than 100 banks signed on to its platform, RippleNet, and was recently accepted for testing by a consortium of Japanese banks. Global banks including Bank of America, RBC and UBS are also customers.

The company initially created 99bn XRP, and has released around 38bn. In May, Garlinghouse announced the company would place 55bn of its XRP into escrow and will unleash up to 1bn into the market each month.

Garlinghouse, formerly a senior executive at Yahoo and AOL, and CEO of the file transfer site Hightail (formerly YouSendIt), told the Wall Street Journal that the recent gains are a reflection of confidence in the coin’s development.

“We have real customers, really in production using this,” Garlinghouse, 46, said, “not science experiments. Science experiments are not a business model.”

Read more: www.theguardian.com

Man buys $27 of bitcoin, forgets about them, finds they’re now worth $886k

Bought in 2009, currency's rise in value saw $27 turn into enough to buy an apartment in a wealthy area of Oslo. By Samuel Gibbs

The meteoric rise in bitcoin has meant that within the space of four years, one Norwegian mans $27 investment turned into a forgotten $886,000 windfall.

Kristoffer Koch invested 150 kroner ($26.60) in 5,000 bitcoins in 2009, after discovering them during the course of writing a thesis on encryption. He promptly forgot about them until widespread media coverage of the anonymous, decentralised, peer-to-peer digital currency in April 2013 jogged his memory.

Bitcoins are stored in encrypted wallets secured with a private key, something Koch had forgotten. After eventually working out what the password could be, Koch got a pleasant surprise: 

“It said I had 5,000 bitcoins in there. Measuring that in today’s rates it’s about NOK5m ($886,000),” Koch told NRK.

Silk Road fluctuations

In April 2013, the value of bitcoin peaked at $266 before crashing to a low of $50 soon after. Since then, bitcoin has seen large fluctuations in its value, most recently following the seizure of online drugs marketplace Silk Road, plummeting before jumping $30 in one day to a high of $197 in October.

Koch exchanged one fifth of his 5,000 bitcoins, generating enough kroner to buy an apartment in Toyen, one of the Norwegian capitals wealthier areas.

Two ways to acquire bitcoins

Customers line-up to use the world’s first ever permanent bitcoin ATM at a coffee shop in Vancouver, British Columbia. Photograph: Andy Clark/Reuters

Typically bitcoins are bought using traditional currency from a bitcoin “exchanger”, although due to strict anti-money laundering controls, the process can can be tricky. A user can then withdraw those bitcoins by sending them back to an exchanger like Mt Gox, the best known bitcoin exchange, in return for cash.

However, bitcoin is gaining more and more traction within the physical world too. It is now possible to actually spend bitcoins without exchanging them for traditional currency first in a few British pubs, including the Pembury Tavern in Hackney, London, for instance. On 29 October, the world’s first bitcoin ATM also went online in Vancouver, Canada, which scans a user’s palm before letting them buy or sell bitcoins for cash. 

A small group of hardcore users also generate extra bitcoins by “mining” for them a process that requires computers to perform the calculations needed to make the digital currency work, in exchange for a share of the built-in inflation.

Mining is a time-consuming and expensive endeavour due to the way the currency is designed. Each subsequent bitcoin mined is more complex than the previous one, requiring more computational time and therefore investment through the electricity and computer hardware required.

In August, Germany recognised bitcoin as a “unit of account“, allowing the country to tax users or creators of the digital currency

Read more: www.theguardian.com

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