For the past year and a half, the loud whirring of tens of thousands of high-power computers filled a cavernous warehouse round-the-clock, contrasting sharply with the quiet forests of the Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China’s Sichuan Province.

This computational arsenal belonged to a crypto mining farm, a facility crammed with specialized computers dedicated to solving complex math problems that keep the network running, and earning new bitcoin along the way.

“That’s the sound of cash coming in,” said the pseudonymous Ye Lang, the 40-year-old manager of the two-floor facility in the prefecture’s Heishui County.

At the peak of the facility’s bitcoin mining, Ye was in charge of 80 employees and 80,000 mining machines, with the entire project estimated to be earning more than 90 million yuan ($14 million) during the peak six months when Sichuan’s rivers are glutted and electricity is especially cheap.

But all this ended at 9 p.m. on June 19, after a cleanup notice issued a day before by the Sichuan government demanded the closure of Ye’s facility, along with 25 other cryptocurrency mining projects in the province.


A bitcoin mining center in Ngawa Tibetan and Qiang Autonomous Prefecture burns the midnight oil as it takes advantage of the region’s abundant hydropower. (Photo by Ding Gang, Caixin)

The shutdown notice followed a May 21 meeting of the State Council’s Financial Stability and Development Committee — a high-level economic and financial policymaking body chaired by Vice Premier Liu He — that specifically stated the country will “crack-down on bitcoin mining and trading,” citing the financial risks involved.

Ye had to terminate all operations: One by one, the facility’s 2,000 giant fans stopped rumbling and the computers stopped whirring.

“It’s over, it’s all over,” he mumbled.

Ye decided to jump on the bitcoin mining bandwagon in 2018 when he closed down most of his internet cafe business, mortgaged his apartment in Anqing, Anhui Province, borrowed money from relatives, and left his wife and daughters to move to Sichuan. The province was until recently China’s second-largest bitcoin mining region after Xinjiang, thanks to its abundant and cheap hydropower.

He got a lucky break in November 2019 when he was introduced to Liu Weimin (not his real name) a well-connected Sichuan businessman who had just negotiated a deal with a state-owned hydropower plant to build a crypto farm in Heishui County, around 300 km from the provincial capital Chengdu. Ye was appointed manager of the facility.

“I watched this center being built brick by brick,” Ye said.


Employees pack up and leave a mining center on June 19 following its closure. (Photo by Ding Gang, Caixin)

The fact that electricity for crypto mining in Sichuan came from hydropower meant that many thought the province would be a safe haven for bitcoin miners. As pressure on local governments to cut carbon emissions began to mount, projects were shuttered in other provincial-level regions such as Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia, where mining was chiefly fueled by coal.

Also, the Sichuan government appeared positive about the business. In July 2019, it decided to set up demonstration zones that welcomed energy-intensive industries to consume hydropower during the summer and autumn months that would otherwise be wasted.

As of April, China was still home to 46% of the world’s bitcoin mining activity with the U.S. coming in second at 16.8%, according to data gathered by the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance.

But everything has changed since the May government meeting, which came after global speculation boosted the bitcoin price to an all-time high of nearly $65,000 per token in mid-April.

According to blockchain information website QKL123, the global average hash rate of bitcoin — the total combined power used to mine the cryptocurrency and process transactions — dropped 48% by June 21 from its historic peak on May 13, the day after Sichuan ordered closures.

Despite the government’s hard-line approach, Ye is determined to carry on: “This industry is extremely volatile. High emotions and stress are involved, but that’s also its appeal.”

“Companies are banned from mining bitcoin, but individuals aren’t,” Ye said, adding that he plans to turn his operation around by purchasing old equipment and downsizing.


Villagers load a truck with removed mining machines on June 21. (Photo by Ding Gang, Caixin)

Liu, the owner of the shuttered farm that Ye managed, is also devising a plan B, unfazed by the dent the government put in his wallet.

The 40-year-old became a yuan billionaire due to his early investments in bitcoin. In Sichuan alone, Liu owned more than 10 bitcoin mining farms, which industry insiders estimated accounted for one-eighth of the total electricity consumed by all bitcoin mines in the province.

During peak seasons, Liu said his farms could mine 70 to 80 bitcoins every day. About 900 bitcoins are issued each day globally, according to an industry information platform. The price of bitcoin is highly volatile, and was sitting at just over $38,500 per token on July 26, up more than 250% from a year earlier but down over 40% from its April peak.

Liu got a first taste of the potential of crypto mining in 2016 when his friend from college showed him a bitcoin mining machine. Already more than 2 million yuan in debt from a failed farming business, he bought 10 mining machines with 10,000 yuan and installed them at a facility run by a startup incubator in Mianyang, Sichuan.

With the electricity fee fully subsidized by the incubator, Liu was able to earn nearly 200 yuan in profit every day running the computers. He added another 50 computers shortly, only to get kicked out by the incubator on New Year’s Day in 2017 because it could no longer stand the bills the operation had racked up.

Liu then decided he would go big or go home. In early 2017, he started with just over 200 mining machines before accumulating around 10,000 machines in September that year.

Shortly after repaying all his debts, Liu decided to adjust his business model and not mine his own bitcoin. Instead, he set up large-scale mining farms for others and helped them manage their machines.

“Mining farms are somewhat like conventional crop farms. No matter how the bitcoin market changes, the mining process remains. Opening such facilities is a relatively stable investment, and I can generally break even in a year,” Liu told Caixin.

Thanks to the Sichuan government’s mining-friendly policies back then, Liu’s business continued to flourish for the past three years. He quickly made a name for himself and was a frequent guest at government events and meetings, where he was recognized as one of many model energy consumers who had helped lift locals out of poverty.

But everything went as fast as it came. The first explicit warning surfaced in late February when authorities in Inner Mongolia proposed banning new crypto mining projects and shut down the entire industry by the end of April as part of a plan to meet the central government’s greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. Soon enough, Qinghai, Xinjiang and Yunnan followed suit.

The clampdown eventually reached Sichuan, with authorities ordering the shutdown of all crypto mines — including all those under Liu’s management — before June 20.

Thankfully, Liu had the foresight to diversify his investments early on in 2019, putting money in various health care, real estate, gaming and entertainment businesses. Following the government’s May 21 crackdown announcement, he arranged teams of employees to scout for new venues in North America and Kazakhstan. In mid-June, his company bought an oil field in Canada that could potentially provide fuel for his bitcoin mining business.

In fact, some fossil fuel-rich states in the U.S. are welcoming crypto operations that can consume stranded natural gas produced by oil companies. In May, Shenzhen-based company Bit Mining signed a $26 million deal to build a crypto mining center in Texas, which is quickly becoming the new cryptocurrency capital thanks to its relatively cheap energy and favorable laws backed by its pro-crypto governor, Greg Abbot.

Right now to Liu, an ideal overseas location for his crypto mining business would have to check two boxes: cheap energy and COVID-safe.

“This is going to be a brand new adventure,” he said.

Read also the original story.

Caixinglobal.com is the English-language online news portal of Chinese financial and business news media group Caixin. Nikkei recently agreed with the company to exchange articles in English.

(Excerpt) Read more Here | 2021-07-29 03:46:00
Image credit: source

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