Overseas use of the yuan for trade and other payments has fallen dramatically as government efforts to stem capital outflows sideline Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambition to take the currency global.
Yuan trade settlement had surged after Beijing first allowed it in 2009, with the proportion of Chinese cross-border trade settled in the currency peaking at 27% in 2015. But its share fell to 19% in 2016, marking the first year-on-year decline, and slumped further to 14% in January through March of this year. Excluding trade with Hong Kong, where the yuan is often used, would likely push the figure even lower.
The yuan was used for just 1.8% of international payments in March, ranking sixth behind the U.S. dollar, euro, pound, yen and Canadian dollar, according to the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Transactions, or SWIFT. The Chinese currency had placed fourth in August 2015 with a 2.8% share, overtaking the yen.
Overseas yuan holdings are shrinking as well. In Hong Kong, the largest yuan hub outside mainland China, yuan deposits hit a six-year low of 507.2 billion yuan at the end of March. This represents a drop of nearly half from 1 trillion yuan in December 2014.
This trend stems mainly from stepped-up capital controls. The Chinese government has gradually imposed stricter curbs since 2015, aiming to rein in outflows and the ensuing softening of the yuan. A measure implemented last November made advance approval necessary for currency conversions or overseas transfers — including in yuan — exceeding $5 million.