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Tether co-founder Brock Pierce teases possible return to Hong Kong, says China will open to cryptocurrencies

Cryptocurrency investor Brock Pierce, who co-founded the stablecoin Tether in Hong Kong a decade ago, has teased that he is looking at returning to work in the city for a third time as the government works to entice the crypto industry back.

Pierce, who is also chairman of the Bitcoin Foundation, was coy about what his new venture would be doing or whether Hong Kong would be its permanent base of operations. He said the city was part of a "continued conversation".

"Big things may come from this," he told the South China Morning Post after the Solowin and Sequire Asia Investor Summit in Hong Kong on Wednesday. "I'm going to go where I think my time is most valuable. I'm enthusiastic about what's happening in Hong Kong, which means I'm enthusiastic about working here, which means the likelihood of something happening is good right now."

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Pierce's comments come shortly after multiple large cryptocurrency exchanges, most with ties to mainland China, ended their bids to become licensed virtual asset trading platforms in the city under regulations introduced last year by the Securities and Futures Commission. The regulator said this week that exchanges licensed in Hong Kong should not serve mainland residents, effectively quashing what was seen as a major incentive for setting up shop locally.

The potential for Hong Kong to act as a gateway to the sizeable mainland China market, where commercial crypto activity is strictly banned, has been enticing to many in the industry. The idea has remained popular among crypto enthusiasts - and was a hot topic at this year's Bitcoin Asia conference - even as mainland regulators have given no indication that they might pull such an about-face.

Still, Pierce said he remains confident that it will happen.

"Is China going to open up [to crypto]? ... I'd say it's inevitable," he said. "The question is not so much if, it's a matter of when."

Pierce said he is encouraged by the recent moves that Hong Kong has made to offer regulatory certainty to investors. He sees the city as moving in the right direction and well positioned in the region relative to Singapore, Japan and South Korea - all of which have introduced their own crypto-specific policies. Trade finance (tradefi) remains a particularly strong opportunity for the city's crypto market, according to Pierce.

"I think Hong Kong is ahead in many ways," he said. "I think the main opportunity in Hong Kong is in tradefi, and that's where a Hong Kong digital dollar stablecoin has tremendous potential."

He pointed to China's supply chain advantage as the reason for this. "You build the right system, there's clearly a very big opportunity that exists here," he said.

Regarding the high costs of Hong Kong's licensing regime and other factors that could deter companies from coming to the city, Pierce said he saw them as temporary hurdles, suggesting he hoped the policies would soften over time.

"Hong Kong is very well positioned, but it requires leadership," he said. "I think that Hong Kong has taken some of the first steps."

Pierce has a long history in Hong Kong. The one-time child star - known for his roles in the films The Mighty Ducks and First Kid - made his first foray into virtual currencies selling those traded in massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) through his start-up Internet Gaming Entertainment, which was based in Hong Kong. He sold another of his ventures, the video gaming community-building firm Zam, started in 2003, to Tencent Holdings in 2012.

The company behind Tether, the world's most widely traded stablecoin, also started in Hong Kong. Pierce became a co-founder after an investment into a company involved in creating the stablecoin. Pierce sold his shares in 2015, leaving the company a year after its founding.

Yet despite his professed love for Hong Kong, he remained tight-lipped about whether it would once again serve as a home base for whatever new project he has up his sleeves.

"The third act is usually the most important in any great story," Pierce said. "This is the third act; let's see what happens."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2024 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2024. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.