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Crypto-Mania Grips Hong Kong as City Looks for Life Beyond Banks

In the mid-1990s, Johnson Leung embarked on a career in shipping. In the early 2000s, he moved to finance. And now, he runs a Hong Kong startup that aims to improve how container ships are booked using blockchain technology.

Many in Hong Kong hope the city can make a similar leap. The shipping and banking hub, which has struggled for years to nurture a domestic technology industry, is embracing the blockchain revolution as it looks for new sources of growth.

Skeptics say it’s a risky bet on an unproven technology

-- one with more than its fair share of hype and, in some cases, fraud. But a growing number of Hong Kong entrepreneurs and policy makers are convinced the online ledger system that underlies cryptocurrencies like bitcoin will eventually reshape everything from financial services to supply chains. They say the city’s laissez faire approach toward regulation, along with its expertise in finance and logistics, make it a natural hub for blockchain startups.

“I don’t see why Hong Kong can’t be a leader of blockchain technology,” said Leung, who co-founded after more than a decade in the financial industry that included stints as a research analyst at JPMorgan Chase & Co. and Jefferies Group LLC. “It’s so new that it’s not like any country has a huge advantage compared to us.”

Hong Kong’s government has been throwing resources at the technology. The city’s monetary authority is developing its own digital currency and is testing blockchains for trade finance, mortgage applications and e-check tracking. Hong Kong’s securities regulator has joined R3, a global consortium that develops blockchain technology for financial transactions, while a government-backed research institute has worked on a blockchain-based system for tracking property valuations, among other initiatives. Hong Kong Exchanges & Clearing Ltd., the city’s publicly-traded exchange monopoly, plans to start a blockchain platform for early-stage companies and their investors next year.

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