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A screenshot from independently produced documentary Bitcoin Girl, available on streaming video service iQiyi, shows the titular cryptocurrency user, who is known by her online name He Youbing. Photo: iQiyi

Can you live on cryptocurrency in China? Documentary Bitcoin Girl shows attempt to do so over 21 days


The rapid growth of mobile payment services like Alipay and WeChat Pay has enabled China’s biggest cities to transform into cashless societies, enabling consumers to use their smartphones to pay for almost everything – from meals and transport to film tickets and foot massages.

The development of cryptocurrencies, however, has sparked interest in how one can live in China today using bitcoin, despite the government’s crackdown on digital currency trading and its ban on payment services that accept such assets.

A group of self-described cryptocurrency enthusiasts, who call themselves Team 1234, have provided a glimpse of how a person can survive on bitcoin in China through their independently produced, multiple-episode documentary that was released on streaming video service iQiyi from August 30.

The documentary Bitcoin Girl shows a young woman known by her online identity of He Youbing, which translates as “why insane” in Mandarin, and her attempt to use the digital currency in a 21-day experiment that covered Beijing, Shenzhen, Guangzhou and Shanghai.

He Youbing, who is from the southeast coastal province of Fujian, carried bitcoin worth an estimated US$1,400 at the start of her trip on August 28. Her experiment involved persuading shop owners and strangers to accept bitcoin in exchange for food, accommodation and traditional banknotes, while educating them about the benefits of blockchain – the technology behind cryptocurrencies.

Most of the 15 six-minute episodes of the documentary that have been shown so far on iQiyi showed the difficulties experienced by He Youbing to trade her bitcoin, which was stored in a wallet app on her smartphone, in exchange for food, transport fare and banknotes.

“I can treat you for meals at our canteen, but I don’t want to take bitcoin,” a Beijing-based college student told He Youbing in one episode. In another segment, a man at a Shenzhen cafe said to her: “I have no idea what bitcoin is.”

In Beijing, the documentary showed He Youbing travelling around the nation’s capital using an unlocked bicycle from bike-sharing service Ofo. She also slept overnight at a McDonald’s restaurant, where she dined on free ketchup.

While in Beijing, He Youbing passed out one day because of a low blood sugar level. She survived that episode by reaching out to a person she befriended in a cryptocurrency chat group. This friend helped send her to hospital.

A couple of men from the same chat group became the first people in He Youbing’s trip to accept her bitcoin in exchange for some snacks.

Things went smoother for He Youbing when she travelled to the southern coastal city of Shenzhen, where a crayfish restaurant accepted bitcoin. She also met a yoga teacher who bought bitcoin from her, a transaction that allowed her to have enough money to spend a night at a modest hotel.

In the latest episode shown on September 15, He Youbing was on her way to Shanghai, the final destination of her 21-day trip.

Team 1234 did not immediately respond to requests for comments made by the South China Morning Post through social messaging service WeChat.

The documentary marks a novel effort by China’s community of cryptocurrency users to raise the profile of digital assets, like bitcoin and ethereum, amid the government’s intensified crackdown on all digital currency-related activities in the country and the recent tumble in value taken by almost every cryptocurrency.

Bitcoin, the largest digital currency, was priced at US$6,466.51 as of 8.03pm in Hong Kong on Monday, marking a 51 per cent decline since the start of this year, according to CoinDesk’s bitcoin price index.

The campaign against cryptocurrencies in China started last September, when regulators banned cryptocurrency exchanges and the unregulated crowdfunding schemes with digital currency known as initial coin offerings.

Despite the central government initiatives on adopting blockchain, the underlying technology behind virtual currencies, Beijing has made it clear it does not want retail investors putting their money into cryptocurrencies amid fears of financial chaos.

Bitcoin Girl, however, is yet to make a splash beyond China’s cryptocurrency community.

In the documentary, the producers said they refused the offer of several blockchain start-ups in China to help fund the experiment.

“If I fail, then that’s the failure of the blockchain people,” said He Youbing in the documentary, likely acknowledging the lack of infrastructure to support mass cryptocurrency transactions when compared with China’s widely used mobile payment platforms.