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A man uses a vending machine promoting China's digital yuan, or e-CNY, at the China Construction Bank booth, in Shanghai, China, on July 8, 2021.SUN YILEI/Reuters

China’s aim to make an Olympic splash with its digital currency, thwarted by a COVID 19-induced decision to exclude foreign spectators, has been taken up instead by a captive audience of locals unable to use their usual digital payment apps.

Only three forms of payment are available at Olympic venues: China’s yuan currency, its digital version known as e-CNY, and Visa, whose cards are not widely used in China.

Tencent’s WeChat Pay and Alibaba’s Alipay, which dominate cashless payments in China, are generally not accepted inside the “closed loop” separating competitors and personnel from the public. No tickets were sold for the Games, meaning crowds at events are small.

“I had heard of the digital yuan before, but I didn’t plan to use it until I was in the loop,” said Li Hongyan, a 20-year-old student volunteer who said she only brought her phone, not realizing she wouldn’t be able to use her normal payment apps.

While Li is typical among Chinese participants, foreigners at the Games – the first from outside the country to use the new digital yuan – seem largely unaware of it.

A number of servers at food and drink stands said that while Chinese customers were mostly using e-CNY for purchases, foreigners mainly use cash or Visa, whose Olympic sponsorship gives it exclusive international payment rights.

During one 30-minute period, 11 customers visited a coffee shop at Genting Snow Park, where snowboard and freestyle skiing events have taken place. The three Chinese customers paid using digital yuan apps to buy drinks and snacks, while one foreigner used cash and the other foreigners paid with Visa.

Foreign visitors polled informally inside the Games loop generally said they had not noticed the alternative payment option.

A senior official from China’s central bank said this week that some 2 million yuan ($316,000) of payments daily at the Beijing Winter Games were made with e-CNY.

Digital currency users either download a phone app or get a specially designed rubber wristband or payment card, which looks like a credit card without a magnetic strip or chip. At ATMs inside the loop operated by state-run Bank of China, 18 currencies can be converted into e-CNY or yuan banknotes.

“It seems all the foreign users are using hardware wallets,” Mu Changchun, director-general of the central bank’s Digital Currency Research Institute, told a webinar arranged by the Atlantic Council, referring to e-CNY payment cards at the Games.

“The software wallets are mainly used by the domestic users.”

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