Three of China’s major cryptocurrency exchanges’ official accounts on Weibo — the Twitter-like social media platform in China — were suspended without warning on Thursday, raising concerns on whether this signals stricter regulations and more crackdowns on cryptocurrency-related activities to come. 

Weibo’s sudden shutdown of the three major crypto exchanges’ social media accounts came on the same day that China’s People’s Congress session came to an end when China’s Premier Li Keqiang declared that the nation “must resolutely crack down on those who commit fraud and illegal fund-raising in the name of new forms of business.”

Even though no direct causal connection to the premier’s words have been made, on the same afternoon, Chinese netizens noticed the official Weibo accounts of OKEx, Huobi and Binance — the three biggest crypto exchange firms in China and around the world — were no longer accessible. 

Weibo, alongside the microblogging platform WeChat, is the two most popular social platforms in China, where all social media posts from individuals and companies alike are monitored by censors and subject to the government’s censorship rules.

Weibo, which is owned by Sina —  which is in turn owned in part by the internet giant Alibaba — has not given a specific reason why it has banned all three crypto exchange companies’ from its social media platform. If a user searches for the crypto exchanges’ accounts, Weibo displays a generic message that “the account is unavailable due to complaints about violating laws and relevant provisions of the Weibo Community Convention,” and that “the user account does not exist” anymore.

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Binance, Huobi and OKEx — which are ranked number one, four and 16 respectively among the world’s cryptocurrency spot exchanges in the world by 24-hour volume — did not reply to requests by Forkast.News for comment.

Despite the three crypto exchanges suddenly going silent on Weibo, news of what happened circulated quickly and widely on the social media platform, which has an estimated 511 million active monthly users. The hashtag “three top crypto exchanges’ Weibo accounts were suspected to be blocked” has been viewed over 500,000 times since yesterday. Some comments reflected China’s anti-cryptocurrency stance and said variations of: “the fraud of cryptocurrency finally came to an end.” But more people reserved public judgment and remained on the sidelines, or posted relatively neutral statements.

“Something is going to happen,” one netizen predicted. 

Premier Li Keqiang’s ultimatum

The day that Weibo cut off the three cryptocurrency exchanges was also the last day of the National People’s Congress session, one of the “two sessions” — also called “Lianghui” — the most important government meetings in China before high-level political decisions are made. At the conclusion of Lianghui, the National People’s Congress passed China’s 14th Five Year Plan, the guiding document for the country’s future social development and economic growth in a multitude of areas, including business and digital technology policy. 

At a news conference Thursday, Premier Li pledged that China would invest more in technology innovations research and development. When asked by Xinhua News Agency about how China would approach it in the context of a market-oriented economy, Li — who is also China’s second-in-command — replied that regulations are necessary to build an environment of fair competition and that the government would create new approaches for supervising growth

 “We support new forms of business, such as the ‘Internet-plus’  and IoT,” Li said. “However, we must resolutely crack down on those who commit fraud and illegal fund-raising in the name of new forms of business, as it disrupts the market. Without fairness, the competition will not be sustainable.”

For some, Li’s references to new forms of business, fraud, illegal fund-raising and crackdowns evoked China’s fraught relationship with its cryptocurrency industry.

In September 2017, at the height of the cryptocurrency industry’s initial coin offering frenzy and it was clear that a significant swath of the sector was fraudulent, China declared ICOs to be an illegal financing activity and banned them nationally. As a result, many cryptocurrency exchanges and other crypto-related companies that were based in mainland China started to move their headquarters out of China, to not be in direct violation of Chinese law. But some crypto companies — including Binance, Huobi and OKEx — continue to operate in China and still offer mainland users services in a legal gray zone through the over-the-counter market. Mainland residents can buy BTC, ETH, EOS and just about any other cryptocurrency from other crypto holders using RMB through bank cards or digital payments. Cryptocurrency holders can also participate in all kinds of trades. 

Since last year, China has also been putting the squeeze on the crypto industry in other ways. Chinese cryptocurrency miners have suffered at least three waves of having authorities freeze their bank accounts in crackdowns that the government says were related to its fight against money laundering. Also last year, pressure from authorities led OKEx to suspend its token withdrawal services for about a month, after its founder Star Xu was detained by police over questions about an equity merger involving a subsidiary crypto company, OK Group. 

After that, Chinese authorities pulled the plug on the first-ever blockchain-based bonds that were planned to be issued by China Construction Bank in Malaysia and Fusang digital exchange — which industry watchers said might have stemmed from government concerns about capital outflow.

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More recently, Inner Mongolia — one of the world’s centers for bitcoin mining farms — announced the region would ban all cryptocurrency mining for environmental protection reasons.     

State of CEOs’ accounts

Thursday’s takedown of Binance, Huobi and OKEx was not the first time that Weibo blocked high-profile cryptocurrency-related accounts. 

Weibo has blocked the account of Justin Sun, the flamboyant founder of TRON, at least three times in the past, with one account, “TeacherJustinSun,” only lasting 12 hours before it was shut down. 

Perhaps as a result of this as well as the general knowledge about the monitoring of all internet content — especially that related to officially frowned-upon topics like cryptocurrency — those in China’s crypto communities tend to keep their mainland public social media presence relatively low-key. But some have already moved their major digital social media presence outside of China’s digital firewall to platforms like Twitter and Telegram — which are accessible to mainland users via VPNs (virtual private networks). 

The exchanges’ WeChat accounts and personal Weibo accounts, like those of CEO Changpeng “CZ” Zhao of Binance and CEO Jay Hao of OKEx, are still accessible. In addition, all three crypto exchanges remain active on Twitter.

In the meanwhile, Binance has announced that former U.S. Senator Max Baucus would join Binance as a policy and government relations adviser. 

#Crypto now have another strong advocate. @Binance is honored to have Sen. Baucus as our advisor,” CZ said, in a tweet today. “Let’s continue push technology innovation and freedom of money in responsible ways. The future is limitless.”