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China Is Showing Off the Digital Yuan at the Olympics. Can the U.S. Compete?

While some worry about America falling behind, banks want the Federal Reserve to stay away from digital dollars.

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Illustration: Jinhwa Jang for Bloomberg Businessweek

China is competing for more than just medals at the Winter Olympics in Beijing this month. It’s also quietly trying to define the future of money. Although attendees can pay vendors for food and souvenirs with a Visa or cash, they also have the option of holding up a phone, scanning a barcode, and paying with the “e-CNY,” or electronic yuan, one of the only so-called central bank digital currencies offered by a major economy.

Inside the Main Media Centre before the start of the games, Cai Qianyi, a 42-year-old media professional, used his Android phone to purchase roast chicken and broccoli. “This is very convenient,” Cai says. “Compared to carrying cash, this way I avoid touching currency notes.”