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Victoria Harbour in front of a skyline of buildings during sunset in Hong Kong, China.

Tyrone Siu/Reuters

Cryptocurrency exchanges operating in Hong Kong will have to be licensed by the city’s markets regulator and will only be allowed to provide services to professional investors, according to government proposals published on Friday.

Governments and financial regulators around the world are still assessing whether and how they should regulate the cryptocurrency industry. Investor protection and preventing money laundering are particular concerns.

Cryptocurrencies such as bitcoin and ether have been on a roller-coaster ride this week which has raised further questions about their potential as mainstream investments.

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Dozens of cryptocurrency exchanges operate in Hong Kong, including some of the world’s largest. The city currently has an “opt in” approach under which exchanges can apply to be licensed by markets watchdog the Securities and Futures Commission, but do not have to.

Hong Kong’s Financial Services and the Treasury Bureau (FSTB) has been consulting the market on changes to those rules since last year.

The FSTB said on Friday in its consultation conclusions all virtual asset (crypto currency) exchanges should be licensed if they wished to operate in Hong Kong.

It also said “confining the services of a VA exchange to professional investors.... is appropriate at least for the initial stage of the licensing regime.”

Local financial technology and crypto industry associations have opposed regulation stopping exchanges from offering services to retail investors, warning this could drive exchanges out of Hong Kong and push investors onto unregulated venues.

According to Hong Kong law, an individual must have a portfolio of HK$8 million ($1.03 million) to count as a professional investor.

Regulators and governments in Asia have different attitudes to regulating cryptocurrencies and the exchanges on which they are traded.

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Under Singapore’s regime, crypto exchanges must be licensed, but can have retail investors as clients. However, China on Tuesday announced a tougher ban on banks and payment companies offering crypto-related services which furthered a selloff that briefly wiped $1 trillion off crypto market capitalisation.

The FSTB said it intends to propose legislative changes to turn its proposals into law in the upcoming 2021-22 session of the city’s legislative assembly.

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