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Another $18.9M Hong Kong exchange scandal, HTX ‘sorry’ airdrop: Asia Express

Our weekly roundup of news from East Asia curates the industry’s most important developments.

Scammers posing as investment experts allegedly enticed 145 victims to tip $18.9 million into the unlicensed Hong Kong crypto exchange Hounax.

According to reports earlier this week, the police said investors were allegedly promised up to 40% return per annum with “no risk” in its advertisements. After users deposited their funds, they were unable to withdraw them. On Nov. 1, the Securities & Futures Exchange (SFC) of Hong Kong listed Hounax on its billboard of suspicious crypto exchanges but clarified that because Hounax was unlicensed at the time of the incident, it was not subjected to the regulator’s enforcement actions.

This was the second scandal involving a crypto exchange in Hong Kong in recent months. In September, another unlicensed exchange, JPEX collapsed after allegations of a Ponzi scheme unsurfaced, leading to 66 arrests and an estimated $205 million in investors’ losses.

Despite the scandals, Hong Kong regulators appear to remain steadfast in their commitment to transforming the city into a major Web3 hub. On Nov. 27, SFC CEO Julia Leung explained that “even if the grace period ends tomorrow, fraud will still occur, so there is no intention to modify the grace period and other measures for the time being.”

Under current regulations, a grace period for crypto exchanges to operate without registration will end in June 2024. On Nov. 30, the SFC stated that it seeks to legitimize initial coin offerings in the city to create more revenue for the national budget.

A former ad from the defunct Hounax exchange.

A former ad from the defunct Hounax exchange.

A former ad from the defunct Hounax exchange. (Medium)

In other Hong Kong crypto news, the financial institutions Interactive Brokers and Victory Securities this week announced they had secured crypto licenses, with the former partnering with licensed crypto exchange OSL to immediately provide Bitcoin and Ethereum trading services to its Hong Kong clients.

And on Nov. 29, Darryl Chan, deputy chief executive of the Hong Kong Monetary Authority, announced a multinational effort to create a cross-chain bridge for China’s digital yuan central bank digital currency. Dubbed “mBridge,” the protocol seeks to reduce transaction fees and improve speeds for cross-border uses of the digital yuan CBDC. The first pilot tests will begin in mainland China and Hong Kong.

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Standard Chartered, HSBC, Hang Seng Bank, and Taiwan-based Fubon Bank have begun testing the digital yuan in cross-border transactions.

According to local news reports on Nov. 28, the four foreign banks will also integrate digital yuan transfer services for their clients and enable them to deposit and withdraw digital yuan. Personal banking accounts will also support the official digital yuan app and self-custody wallet. Yuesheng Song, president and vice-chairman of Hang Seng China, commented:

“The central bank’s launch of the digital RMB, a legal currency in digital form, is an important step for China to explore the development of digital currency and promote the internationalization of the RMB. Hang Seng China follows the national financial development policy advocacy and actively supports the application and development of the central bank’s digital currency.”

In the first three quarters of 2023, the use of the digital yuan in transactions was up 35% year-on-year, reaching $1.39 trillion, China Daily reported. On Nov. 29, the first-ever digital yuan student loans were issued in the province of Suzhou, with $26,230 worth of loans being issued directly into the digital wallets of 13 recipients.

List of banks supported by the e-CNY app, including Standard Chartered, HSBC, Hang Seng Bank, and Fubon Bank. (Baidu)

List of banks supported by the e-CNY app, including Standard Chartered, HSBC, Hang Seng Bank, and Fubon Bank. (Baidu)

List of banks supported by the e-CNY app, including Standard Chartered, HSBC, Hang Seng Bank, and Fubon Bank. (Baidu)

HTX exchange (formerly Huobi Global) has reopened deposits and withdrawals after a devastating hot wallet hack that drained the exchange of $30 million on Nov. 22.

According to the Nov. 26 announcement, the exchange has since resumed deposits and withdrawals on the Bitcoin, Ethereum and Tron networks.

“Huobi HTX once again promises to fully compensate for the losses caused by this attack and 100% guarantee the safety of user funds. The amount of funds lost by Huobi HTX this time accounts for a very small amount of the total funds of the platform,” the exchange said.

The firm has also announced that a special airdrop will take place in December designed to reward its “loyal users.” Airdrop tokens will reportedly come from “upcoming high-quality projects,” and the amount to be received will be determined by a users’ average net assets on the HTX exchange denominated in Tether (USDT).

Justin Sun, de-facto owner of the HTX exchange (Twitter)

Justin Sun, de-facto owner of the HTX exchange (Twitter)

Justin Sun, de-facto owner of the HTX exchange. Incredibly, Warren Buffett did not convert to crypto following the meeting. (X)

Immediately after the incident, Justin Sun, founder of the Tron ecosystem and de-facto owner of the HTX exchange, commented, “we will cover the loss and all assets are SAFE.” Despite assurances, however, this was the fourth exploit involving the HTX ecosystem within the past two months. Around the same time as the HTX exploit, the HTX Ecosystem Chain (HECO) bridge was hacked for $87 million.

On Nov. 10, Poloniex, an exchange acquired by Sun in 2018, was hacked for $100 million due to allegedly compromised private keys. The exchange resumed withdrawals on Nov. 30. On Sept. 25, HTX was drained of $8 million in a security incident. The exchange has since clawed back $8 million in stolen funds and issued a 250 Ether bounty to the hacker.

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