The same day that disgraced cryptocurrency exchange founder Sam Bankman-Fried was arrested in the Bahamas, Taipei’s mayor-elect, Chiang Wan-an, stepped onto a stage in front of a packed auditorium to extol the bright future that blockchain technology would bring to Taiwan.
Chiang’s speech was part of Taipei Blockchain Week, which took place last month in a movie theater on the upper floors of a luxury mall, with views of the iconic Taipei 101 building. There, attendees heard Taiwan’s pitch to a shaken crypto community: The island nation should be Asia’s next crypto hub.
The crowd cheered as Chiang, the purported great-grandson of authoritarian leader Chiang Kai-shek, declared that in Taiwan’s blockchain-powered future, “everyone will have the chance to be heard.”
At the event, which took place between December 12 and 17, Taiwan was touted as the place where blockchain founders and funders could hire from deep pools of local tech talent to create the region’s next crypto hub. The conference, for which organizers told Rest of World they sold 900 tickets, was hosted by Bu Zhi DAO, a decentralized autonomous organization focused on connecting global crypto enthusiasts with the Web3 community in Taiwan. The organization’s members include employees from companies such as Solana, Coinbase, Discord, Twitch, Google, Microsoft, and others. Three days of talks and events were followed by a boot camp for developers working on blockchain projects, which concluded with a demo-day pitch event.
Leu Jang-hua, the country’s minister of digital industries, echoed Chiang’s remarks that investing into blockchain technology would bring cybersecurity and empowerment to Taiwan, which already occupies a critical position in the global tech-supply chain as home to the most cutting-edge semiconductor manufacturing in the world. Throughout the week-long event, young programmers in hoodies slouched in the back row of the auditorium, coding through the officials’ speeches.
When the government in neighboring China banned cryptocurrency in mid-2021, many of crypto’s earliest and most energetic proponents had to look for a new place for their companies to flourish. Much of the industry’s top talent — founders of the world’s biggest crypto exchanges, as well as funders backing new crypto ventures — landed in Singapore. But, after a year of high-profile crypto volatility, scams, and fraud, Singapore’s government is no longer enthusiastically positioning the city-state as the center of the crypto universe. In October, Singapore’s central bank chief, Ravi Menon, said the government’s approach to crypto trading would be “among the strictest in the world.”
Earlier in 2022, Hong Kong had shown signs of interest in attracting the crypto community to build and invest in the territory, only to pass stringent requirements for crypto companies that some say would stifle growth. In early October, Hong Kong’s financial secretary, Paul Chan, championed Hong Kong as a haven for digital assets and indicated the territory would allow retail trading of crypto assets. In 2023, laws requiring all virtual asset companies to comply with strict anti-money laundering regulations will take effect in Hong Kong.
Taiwan, meanwhile, has laid the foundation to become the region’s crypto haven. For years, legislators have talked up the country’s potential as “the blockchain island.” In September 2022, the government granted regulatory approval to 24 crypto exchanges, including MaiCoin, BitoPro, and XREX. In December, Hong Kong-based crypto investor Sora Ventures relocated its fund to Taiwan. During the first six months of 2022, crypto transaction volume in Taiwan grew more than 30% — one of the fastest rates in Asia. The country’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, MaiCoin, now reports more than $20 million in daily trading volume. Leo Seewald, former head of BlackRock in Taiwan, and current director at MaiCoin, said the exchange is “running in the most conservative way possible” in order to show to potential crypto investors that Taiwan is the most stable and secure place to trade crypto.
“Taipei is a bit ahead of Hong Kong, from a Web 3.0 perspective,” Ian Estrada, CEO and co-founder of decentralized financial services platform XLD, told Rest of World. Estrada’s company enables exchange from fiat currency to cryptocurrency in economies that depend on remittances, including Southeast Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America. That gives Estrada a bird’s-eye view of which geographies have crypto-friendly regulation. In Hong Kong, said Estrada, “they’re cracking down on anything related to crypto.”
Singapore was likewise “walking back on things,” said Estrada. A major bank had, since the end of 2021, closed the accounts of companies even indirectly linked to the crypto community. “But if you ask me, is [Singapore] the best place to stay and build? I don’t think so.”
Taiwan’s efforts to create a stable foundation for exchanges could be hindered by some of the same dynamics that have made it hard for the country’s startup scene to take off. Financial regulators in the country have a reputation for conservatism, even with the new exchange licenses. And while a new company can be registered in under 48 hours in Hong Kong and Singapore, it can take up to four months in Taiwan, an obstacle for founders to incorporate in the country.
Still, the mood was buoyant at Taipei Blockchain Week, even as FTX continued to collapse halfway around the world. During a question-and-answer session, one audience member captured the crypto community’s ambition by quoting Warren Buffett’s encouragement to be “greedy when others are fearful.” Outside the hall, models in sparkly silver dresses posed with signs for Taipei-based crypto exchange BTSE.
The conference centered on the theme of a “bridge,” bringing together attendees from the U.S. and East and Southeast Asia to meet with the local community, a core Bu Zhi DAO contributor who did not have authorization to speak to media told Rest of World. Despite their shared interest in seeing the crypto universe grow, not all attendees shared the same language. Many of the presentations on the conference’s first day were conducted in Mandarin. “There’s two ecosystems here,” they said. “There’s one that’s taking place in Mandarin, kind of focused on their own hub, and then there’s projects here that work with the whole world.”
While the contributor said his experience of organizing the event had been collaborative, other foreign crypto founders hadn’t had the same experience. In talk after talk, speakers emphasized that the community needs to come together to harness the island’s tech talent. “We can build things as fast as anyone else in the world, if not better,” said Willy Wu, co-founder of NFT trading platform Arcade/Minty, who formerly ran Uber’s expansion in Taiwan. “But we’re still missing the piece of bringing Taiwan up to that level. Everyone in the world right now is competing. We really need to understand what makes us stand out.”