Crypto Exchanges in Hong Kong See Potential in Regulator’s ‘Safety First’ Approach Despite Challenges

June 7, 2024

By Anjali Kochhar

Many bitcoin exchanges in Hong Kong that are “deemed to be licensed” remain upbeat about the city’s virtual asset industry, despite recent withdrawals. Eleven businesses have made progress toward gaining a license thanks to Hong Kong’s stringent regulatory framework, while others are doubting the feasibility of operating in such a small market.

A surge of withdrawals from key worldwide crypto exchanges, including OKX, Bybit, and, has shattered trust in Hong Kong’s Web3 development. Duncan Chiu, a Legislative Council member, recently slammed the city’s laws as “overly harsh” in an opinion piece, underlining the issues created by restrictions implemented last year.

The Securities and Futures Commission (SFC) has explicitly instructed platform operators to not serve mainland Chinese residents, compounding the difficulties faced by exchanges. High costs and extensive technical and operational overhauls required to comply with regulations that took effect in June 2023 have led over a quarter of the initial 24 license applicants to withdraw, forcing them to shut down operations in Hong Kong.

“It’s natural that they would withdraw their applications, as the trade-off between the size of the retail market in Hong Kong and the high regulatory costs, along with the impact on their global operations, isn’t justified,” said Alessio Quaglini, co-founder and CEO of Hong Kong-based cryptocurrency custody provider Hex Trust.

“The current framework in Hong Kong is very restrictive, which deters global companies from establishing substantial operations here,” Quaglini added. “If the aim is to position Hong Kong as a global hub, the strategy is sound but the execution should be improved.”

Central to the SFC’s regulatory approach is the principle of “same activity, same risks, same regulation,” which emphasizes investor protection by requiring virtual asset market participants to meet the same standards as those in traditional finance. Jonathan Crompton, a partner at law firm RPC in Hong Kong, noted that the withdrawal of major exchanges shows that “the SFC is not driving forward at any cost.”

Exchanges still pursuing a license in Hong Kong see reasons for optimism. Many have strong ties to the city, including, the largest among the 11 firms recently “deemed to be licensed,” a prerequisite for continued operation while awaiting full approval. Bullish, the owner of CoinDesk and the next largest deemed applicant by trading volume, is bringing its major crypto conference, Consensus, to Hong Kong next year.

“We have always believed that regulatory clarity brings confidence and enables firms like Bullish and jurisdictions like Hong Kong to progress forward and innovate,” said Michael Lau, global head of sales at Bullish. The company has never served mainland customers and is unaffected by the rule barring such activity.

Sean Lawrence, head of Asia-Pacific at blockchain data analytics firm Kaiko, noted that continued investment and pursuit of local licenses “can only be seen as an endorsement of Hong Kong as [having] huge potential for virtual assets, and a testament to the regime the SFC has so far prescribed.” He also suggested that some withdrawn applicants may reapply as technology and risks evolve.

“As far as I know, some of them will try again,” said Legislative Council member Johnny Ng Kit-chong. “They will handle their affairs internally and try again.”

This cautious optimism reflects a belief in the long-term potential of Hong Kong’s regulatory environment for virtual assets, despite the immediate challenges.

About the author

Anjali Kochhar covers cryptocurrency stories in India as well as globally. Having been in the field of media and journalism for over three years now, she has developed a sharp news sense and works hard to present information that goes beyond the obvious. She is an avid reader and loves writing on a wide range of subjects.

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