China housed an estimated one-half to three-quarters of Bitcoin’s proof-of-work network, then lost nearly all when the government initiated bitcoin mining bans in the first-half of 2021.
This is the tale how and why China forced ~ 2 million bitcoin ASICs offline, relinquishing its lion-share of the hash rate. Moreover, who are the Chinese bitcoiners? How much of the hash rate will recover? And what do miners expect moving forwards?
For the past eight years ASIC miners took advantage of cheap and abundant electricity in China, priced between 1-6¢/kWh (0.1-0.4 Yuan). Also, running a bitcoin mine in China was logistically optimal. This was because domestic machine manufacturers and top mining pools made for quick lead times and low network latency. Staff and infrastructure costs were reasonable. Plus an abundance of hardware resellers, repair centers, and spare parts limited downtime.
Chinese leaders had threatened bitcoin mining bans since the bull run of 2017, although they never pulled the trigger. The government even removed crypto mining from its list of ‘activities to be banned’ in 2019. So the decision to crackdown in 2021 came as a shock.
China’s Miner Demographics
Bitcoin mines were concentrated to the West of the country which is less populated and developed. Here, the majority of energy sources are independent of the national grid and provide for local communities and industry. Both thermal power in the north and hydropower in the south supplied most bitcoin mines.
Miners in China were renowned for their annual migrations. Below you will see an illustration of the most popular provinces for bitcoin mining spanning one year. When monsoon rains occurred the hydro-powered regions of Sichuan and Yunnan captured ~ 50% of the global hash rate. When hydropower was restricted miners moved to cheaper fossil fueled farms in the North and the West of the country including Xinjiang, Inner Mongolia, and Gansu.
Province’s percent of China’s hash rate based on CBECI data. The wet season is April-October. Note, the data in this study serves as a good indicator but only represents a third of all miners based on their IP address. Data is from Chineses-owned BTC.com, ViaBTC, and Poolin, as well as American-owned Foundry mining pools.
After the bitcoin mining bans one of China’s biggest miners, B.Top Mining, said,
"The best blockchain is the one that doesn’t exist. After all, who would have thought that Bitcoin mining maps which is created jointly by the Cambridge University and Chinese mining pools would become the weapon for the crackdown?"
In China independent miners owned between one and a few hundred ASICs. Larger industrial players and cloud providers owned thousands of units. Few international miners existed, likely due to unfavorable business regulations and perceived political risk.
Bitcoin mining was huge. Private mining forums had thousands of members, mining events were a common occurrence, and miner influencers existed. Several companies offered hosting for those who could not mine at home. Grassroots businesses were able to grow by colocating at data parks or negotiating with rural hydropower plants. Sometimes miners got loans from other miners or banded together to expand and purchase more gear.
Miner Criticism was Cyclical
During bull runs miner profitability increases and the hash rate grows at a quicker pace. Over the years this resulted in mining farms shutting due to energy competition, ‘noncompliance’, environmental protection, or disputes with locals. Further, news outlets demonize Bitcoin’s energy use when the BTC price is high, despite the fact that bitcoin mining consumes a fraction of a percent of the world’s energy, and consumed just 1% of the China’s total supply.
Here is an excerpt from a story that ran in November 2017 when Bitcoin was at an ATH of $9k: “As many small and medium-sized mining data centers in Sichuan, Guizhou, and Inner Mongolia are closed for the sake of “environmental protection”, the “green” ones that remain operational usually avoid media exposure.” For example, a miner appeared on state television talking about his profitable mining operations in Sichuan. Shortly after the program aired he was forced to close all three of his farms. Fellow miners ostracized him for drawing attention to the industry, calling him ‘an idiot’ and the ‘most hated man’.
Zoom forwards to the bear market in 2019-2020 when earnings hit a low of 6¢/TH. Chinese farms closed due to diminished profitability and older generation hardware went into storage. Sichuan cut power prices and some machines migrated to places like Venezuela, Iran, Russia, and Kazakhstan. In a previous article we estimated that by the end of 2020 China had lost up to a quarter of its hash rate, bringing its share down to ~ 55% of the global network, this was later corroborated by CBECI data.
During these dark times President Xi advised ‘China should expedite the development of blockchain technology and actively integrate it into its economy‘ and mining became more acceptable. So when machine manufacturing and farm construction picked-up in late 2020 alongside the bull run, miners were more open about their operations. For instance BIT Mining announced plans in February 2021 of a gigantic hydropower mine in Sichuan to accommodate 200,000 ASICs, or about 15 EH/s.
Xinjiang, Sichuan and Yunnan
Xinjiang is an ‘Economic and Technological Development Zone’, whereby industrial projects like metal smelting, coal processing, and Cloud Data Management increase the region’s GDP. The Zhundong Industrial Park brings in several billion dollars in local tax revenue per year and bitcoin miners at the Park contributed greatly to the hash rate. We previously spoke with a Uyghur businessman who owned a large farm in Zhundong. He was proud to be able to provide wealth for his community before the bitcoin mining bans.
Then there were the powerhouses of Sichuan and Yunnan who beckoned miners. Both provinces produce over 90 GW hydropower each per annum and have an abundance of dams. Sichuan is an ‘Economic and Technological Development Zone’ and last year big data centers consumed ~ 40% of the province’s available power, equivalent to ~ 1 million bitcoin mining machines. In April, Yunnan released plans to develop their blockchain industry.
Like in Xinjiang, the bitcoin mining industry in the southern provinces also benefited minority ethnicities as well as left-behind elderly and children. Otherwise unemployed residents of rural and isolated communities worked in mines, and repaired and transported machines. Miners who visited the area made friends with locals and purchased clothes, accommodation, food, and entertainment.
Miners also helped to balance energy loads. Larger ‘compliant’ farms were connected to dams which are being build out to feed the national grid and have surplus energy. Industrial miners paid taxes and fees, and received permits to operate. Small to medium sized miners at village-based hydropower dams paid energy taxes. Mining revenue contributed to employment and upkeep of the plants which often fed electricity to residents as well.
An anonymous and bitter miner from Yunnan/Sichuan reflects on the region's losses in June of 2021:
"In addition to electricity, some of us need to stay in the local area for a long time, so we need to buy food, clothing, housing and transportation from the local people, and eat, drink and entertainment locally. For example, in one of our mines, we need to ask the local aunt to cook, and give 3,000 yuan a month... During the flood season, let them help move the machine to the shelves and pay by day, which is also an income. In fact, after we came to some places, including the logistics industry, maintenance industry, catering, accommodation and entertainment, there are actually many changes in all aspects, some of which were brought about by our direct consumption, ... and some of them were made by the local people after we paid, and they also consumed themselves, so they cycled up. Speaking of some village mountain roads, we need to use tricycles to pull the machine up when we first come... trucks can't get in."
Bitcoin mining bans were ordered over a period of five months. It all kicked off in late February of 2021 in Inner Mongolia, a week after Bitcoin’s price had reached an ATH of nearly $56k.
Inner Mongolia had exceeded its 2019 carbon emission quota and was under scrutiny by Beijing. They announced that all mines must close before April in a bid to reduce energy use, purify the big data industry, and prevent financial risk. More formal rules were set out in May which threatened to fine or prosecute anyone involved with the industry, including telecommunication companies. Residents were encouraged to report mining activity through a hotline.
Following this, a sudden shutdown of mining farms in the Zhundong Industrial Park in Xinjiang happened on April 16th, 2021. This was a day after the BTC price had hit another ATH of $63k. Three accidents in coal mines had occurred within months of one another. Data centers were scapegoated for the regional increases in energy use and underwent government inspection. Power returned after a week.
In the end of April the majority of bitcoin miners began their migration to the southern provinces for the wet season. However, power there was temporarily restricted due to drought, inspections, and other reasons.
Then in June miners were ordered by notices issued by local governments and energy providers to immediately cease operations in Xinjiang, Qinghai, Yunnan, and Sichuan. In July the Henan, Gansu, and the Anhui province laid out guidelines to crackdown on the industry.
Sichuan’s notice on June 18th was most surprising. This is because officials had held a meeting on June 2nd and decided that miners could operate until September. Additionally, the prefecture of Ya’an had invited miners in April to receive surplus hydropower for as little as 1¢/kWh from its local grid. Here, transmission lines from large dams to other regions are in the works, but will take several years to execute because of the harsh terrain. Thus, the energy that was once provided to miners is now wasted. Likewise, smaller isolated dams sit idle without bitcoin miners and some have been advertised for sale.
Hash Rate Changes
Onlookers watched as the hash rate dropped with each regional announcement. See below the timing of the shutdowns compared to BTC price and hash rate.
Interestingly, after the first Xinjiang shutdown the BTC price fell -15%. After the second Xinjiang shutdown the BTC price recovered +17%. This positive market reaction was likely due to the perception that ‘coal-backed bitcoin mining’ and ‘Chinese-centralization’ had ended. But from May to July both hash rate and price dropped substantially.
In total the hash rate fell from a peak of ~180 EH/s to around 85 EH/s in June. This suggests that miners in China contributed to ~52% of the Bitcoin network.
From mid-June the difficulty adjustment epoch lasted 24 days, instead of the usual 14. The lost hash resulted in the largest ever downward adjustment of -27.9% on July 7th, 2021. Miner’s earnings went from 24¢ to 33¢/TH. The difficulty dropped from 25 trillion to 14 trillion, a level not seen since June 2020.
At the time of writing this hash has recovered to 100 EH/s and difficulty has dipped to 13.6 trillion. By the end of the year we expect the Bitcoin network to reach 130-150 EH/s, and by the end of 2022 perhaps 200 EH/s.
Nonetheless, the network is no less secure. A 51% attack is nearly impossible to execute. It would cost $1,567,483 to rent one hour of hash – but this quantity of hash is not available to rent. Purchasing enough machines to launch an attack would be billions of dollars. And then, where do you get enough electricity?
Overall, the bitcoin mining bans displayed the resilience of Bitcoin’s proof of work, and the efficiency of its self-auditing block discovery pace through difficulty adjustments.
When nationwide bitcoin mining bans occurred Chinese-owned mining pools hemorrhaged hash. Except for ViaBTC that is. ViaBTC temporarily climbed to number one, losing only -20%, or -3 EH/s. They are known to have clientele and infrastructure in Russia, among other locations.
BTC.TOP disappeared from the rankings and its founder Jiang Zhuoer announced cloud operations would move to North America. BTC.com announced relocation to North America and Kazakhstan. All the while Foundry and Slush pools, who are US and EU backed, climbed to 6th and 8th places respectively.
At the time of writing, US-backed MARA Pool has risen to tenth place and AntPool leads with just over half of their original hash, 16 EH/s. Look out for more top ranking European and North American mining pools as hash rate continues to decentralize.
ASIC manufacturing was centered in China and pulled in billions of dollars annually. Revenue from hardware sales contributed to microchip and AI research and development. This was important because China’s leadership believe that AI technology and domestic semiconductor manufacturing is critical for financial independence, and military and economic success. These goals were emphasized in the New Generation Artificial Intelligence Development Plan from 2017, as well as the Made in China 2025, from 2015.
Due to the bull run Bitmain, Cannan, and MicroBT accrued years worth of orders, predominately from institutional miners. Bitmain and MicroBT already have production facilities in Malaysia, but in the long-run the bitcoin mining bans likely push all mining-related businesses overseas.
Between April and June ASIC resellers in Shenzhen dropped prices by up to -65%. In response Bitmain announced that it had halted spot-sales of new bitcoin mining machines in order to prop up resale prices.
Bitmain to the Rescue
The same week in June as Sichuan announced the closure of mines, Bitmain Technologies Ltd was sponsoring a Mining Summit in Missouri. Within days executives had returned home and gathered miners from all over the country for a meeting at the Gran Melia Chengdu Hotel to discuss the bitcoin mining bans.
Presentations were given about Texas energy and Kazakhstan mining regulations. Miners were warned to act fast because kWh prices would rise with surging demand and limited colocation capacities. One slide instructed fellow miners to, “Hold Together for Warmth, Say No to Vicious Competition.” Bitmain employees were offered as liaisons to assist miners to migrate.
Realizing their profession may have ended alongside the bitcoin mining bans, some miners at the meeting chose rather to drown their sorrows in alcohol and karaoke.
Bitcoin Mining Bans… But, Why!?
Between 2017-2019 China’s government discouraged cryptocurrency mining. However, local authorities did not share the sentiment and welcomed the revenue that the mining industry brought in. But in 2021 the bitcoin mining bans were a top-down decision, provincial governments had no say.
Here we review the environmental, economic, and social motivations that appear to have led to the national crackdown on virtual currencies and mining.
In 2020 Chinese politicians announced carbon neutrality by 2060. And in March of 2021 China’s 14th Five Year Plan set firm targets for a reduction of energy intensity. The same month General Secretary Xi Jinping reiterated the country’s serious environmental plans to 40 world leaders at Biden’s climate summit.
In early April a Chinese-authored study in the Journal of Nature claimed that China’s fossil-fueled bitcoin mining could derail the country’s environmental goals and the network would reach 300 TWh by 2024. In turn, news outlets griped that China had the highest bitcoin mining emissions of any country and should be stopped. Officials took notice.
The scholars made recommendations for stricter monitoring of the industry. Although, they did not consider the use of abandoned hydropower in southern provinces nor negative feedbacks on network growth. By 2024 the network (including China) would have likely only fulfilled half of their predictions, yet miscalculations are a common feature of Bitcoin critics who do not understand the dynamics.
Additionally, both Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang were found to have experienced a recent surge in illicit coal extraction from previously idle mines. Bitcoin miners were blamed for these increases in February and April. Yet, since the bitcoin mining bans coal-reliant industrial production has grown nearly 10% and state coal reserves will be released to steady prices.
In mid-April Jihan Wu, chairman of Bit Deer, warned bitcoin miners to not take chances because carbon neutrality would soon impact the industry. On April 29th Beijing and other provinces began mapping bitcoin mining as the scholars had recommended. The central government used miner’s business data and machine specifications to inform their next decisions.
By the end of April miners believed that any new rulings would mean stricter regulations, not prohibition. Unfortunately on May 1st President Xi remarked that achieving carbon neutrality is China’s commitment to the world, and all energy-consuming projects which are not considered to be beneficial must be banned. Subsequently, bitcoin mines were shutdown across the country in the months that followed.
In mid-May, the Xinhua News Agency issued an article attacking the chaotic virtual money market. They mentioned individuals losing money on Bitcoin investments and token offerings. Xiao Sa, a Bank of China executive, commented that virtual currencies fraudulently induce victims to invest, and may encourage users to abscond or embezzle funds for the purpose of illegal possession. Thus laws should be “amended in due course to impose sanctions”.
Days later Huang Zhen, economist and academic, warned that “Chinese policy does not recognize the currency properties of Bitcoin, ..it might impact currency management and the financial system. At present, the only virtual currency recognized by China is the digital yuan.”
This was followed by an article in late-May in The Economic Information Daily. It called for rectification of the cryptocurrency ecosphere. The author claims digital currencies foster: illusion in the trading market, bankruptcies from price fluctuations, security threats, and noncompliant users. He notes that because currencies like Bitcoin are anonymous and decentralized they “become a carrier of illegal and criminal activities such as money laundering, drug trafficking, smuggling, illegal fund-raising, etc.” Albeit, contrary studies find that crypto crime accounts for only a fraction of a percent of the cryptocurrency market.
Further, there was notion to the fact that cryptocurrencies may pose a risk for capital flight. Unregulated money could move out of China, and many cryptocurrency-related businesses have decentralized operations. Additionally, bitcoin miners who colocate in data centers use subsidized electricity, industrial kWh prices are far less than household rates.
Finally on May 21st, the Financial Stability and Development Committee of the State Council proposed to “crack down on Bitcoin mining and trading behaviors, and resolutely prevent individual risks from being transmitted to the social field“. Thereafter, banks, payment companies, and exchanges shutdown transactions and trading for Chinese residents. Bitcoin mining bans were announced across the nation.
Funnily, after the bans, China announced plans to accelerate blockchain development and adoption. They hope to become a world leader in the technology by 2025.
Bobby Lee, who closed an exchange in China amidst the 2017 crackdowns, believes that the government may view cryptocurrencies as ‘a threat to shehui wending, or social stability’. Lee says, “When people lose their money in a market crash, it causes social unhappiness, and that can cause political unrest”. Lee went on to say that perhaps the government’s elimination of cryptocurrencies just before the CCP’s 100-year anniversary in July was also a pride issue, akin to ‘having to tidy up your bedroom before your father’s birthday party’.
Lastly, David Morris believes the crackdowns could have been caused by perceived “national data security risks.” China has a willingness to surveillance its citizen’s payments and internet use, as well as current technologies. Whereas a system like Bitcoin was designed to be permission-less and borderless.
Bitcoin Miner Exodus
Whilst most institutional miners are building farms overseas, smaller miners face difficulties moving forwards.
Small to Medium Miners
Smaller miners do not have the same amount of financial leverage or connections as larger players and can be cheated. Some have formed groups through online forums in order to help each other to migrate to places like Kazakhstan, Russia, and South America. Yet the process of moving takes months and many farms are full. In addition, electricity prices for colocation have risen by ~ 40-60% since last year.
A survey by Colin Wu in late-June suggested that 40% of small to medium sized bitcoin miners would move, 46% would wait and see, and 14% would sell their rigs. But those who ‘waited to see’ may never get their rigs back online and ASIC prices could drop further.
Within China few bitcoiners remain. Enforcement of bitcoin mining bans, threefold power prices, drought and flooding have made for a rough time. Some mine at home but have difficulties with suspicious power consumption, noise, and heat. Some farms exist in rural areas of Southern China but El Nino events mean running times are intermittent and electricity fees are up to 10¢/kWh. Water levels in the southern provinces were at a 50-year low until July, followed by torrential rain and floods.
For those mining it is a cat and mouse game because the government is still shutting down smaller miners through inspections and reporting. In one instance the National Emergency Internet Center identified mining related IPs and instructed a local government to act. Lastly, it is difficult for miners to pay for power because OTC traders are hard to come by and exchanges now restrict Chinese customers.
Large-scale miners are moving their equipment abroad, putting rigs into warehouses, and/or selling. Only top-of-the-line ASICs are being sent overseas to reduce breakdown and increase efficiency profiles. In order to prevent future shutdowns most big miners are also demanding renewable energy sources.
Thanks to the bull run American miners are busy expanding, leaving little room for Chinese miners to colocate. For those who build their own facilitates construction cycles take months, involve complicated bureaucracy, and cost up to six times more than in China. Additionally import fees from China are 26.7%. Therefore only large experienced miners with more resources will move state-side and pay anywhere from 2-6¢/kWh for electricity.
Around a quarter of China’s expelled ASICs will land on US soil. Bryan Bullett of Bit Digital says his company shipped 15,000 ASICs to the states including Nebraska. He believes 500,000 miners will relocate to America in total. Tim Kelly of BitOoda has already allocated 1,400 MW of US power to Chinese miners, equivalent to about 400,000 new generation models.
The most popular destination in USA is Texas. Cipher Mining Technologies Inc., a part of Bitfury, like that the Texan grid is deregulated and are building out capacity. BIT Mining are constructing a $25 million dollar facility in Texas which is expected to provide 57 MW of 85% clean energy for BitDeer’s cloud miners. Poolin have also signaled interest in the state.
Cipher Mining will also place gear in Ohio which has cheaply priced low-carbon power. Some miners are looking into Florida who claim to have nuclear power available to miners, as well as hydro in upstate New York. But there was some hesitancy about NY because bitcoin mining bans were proposed three years ago. Luckily the bill died in Assembly after pushback from unions.
According to CBECI, North America is the number one destination for miners followed by Kazakhstan then Russia. At the time of writing America is thought to house 17% of the hash rate and rising. Once migrants are settled and more domestic orders are fulfilled, America’s share could climb to 30%.
China’s bitcoin mining bans pushed many miners to seek refuge in neighboring Kazakhstan which benefits from a cool and dry climate. It is also in close proximity to manufacturers and spare parts. Although due to limited energy resources, Kazakhstan is flying in ASICs by the tens-of-thousands opposed to America’s hundreds-of-thousands. Also, electricity tariffs are between 4-5¢/kWh, up from 2-4¢/kWh last year.
Several domestic hosting companies are expanding, thus all spare 200 MWs of hydro, natural gas, and coal power were booked by Chinese miners in a matter of weeks. In the future old power stations from Europe may even relocate to supply more mines.
Industrial miners BIT Mining and Cannan got a head start on migrating north of the border. They both began constructing Kazakh mines in April after the first Xinjiang shutdown and opened in June. The cost of BIT Mining’s facility was 40% less than in Texas. Also, Cannan opened an after-sales service center for AvalonMiners and Bitmain signed an agreement with ENEGIX to host S19 miners.
Kazakhstan currently house about 8% of the world’s hash rate and rising. The Astana International Financial Centre (AIFC) works with miners and regulators in order to bring more investments into the country. Mining is legal, however, some are put off by policies. Data centers in AIFC’s IT park pay a 1% use fee, and from January 2022 the country will impose a national tariff of 1 Kazakhstani tenge (~ $0.0023) per kWh. Lastly, miners can import machines free from the 12% tariff if they open a business, but this is time consuming. Miners may also ‘gift’ machines to farm owners to circumnavigate import tariffs but this is a hard pill to swallow.
Sizable quantities of machines are on the way to Russia where the cool arctic climate is perfect for ASICs. Many farms are full yet some are expanding within the next half year. Although, the rising demand means electricity prices have gone from 3¢/kWh to 5-6¢/kWh.
Some Russia-based miners run on nuclear power near Moscow, yet most mines are in Central and Eastern Siberia. Here dams like the Krasnoyarsk, the Bratsk, and the Ust-Ilimsk produce 15,000 MW combined. Miners in the Siberian north also take advantage of flared gas from oil production plants.
Russia houses nearly 7% of the global hash rate and rising. In fact the Russian Association of Cryptoeconomics Artificial Intelligence and Blockchain (RACIB) works with federal and regional authorities, as well as state-owned energy enterprises to to attract more mining businesses. The group estimate that up to 50% of Russia’s energy is wasted at large plants. And, like in Southern China, bitcoin miners could utilize excess power at the same time as they support surrounding communities.
In June City Nine announced their acquisition of Canadian Montcrypto mine, and investment into Skychain mine. Canada, however, is not as popular as America because power suppliers and regulators are sometimes unfriendly toward miners. Wu cites that miners located at smaller hydro dams have limited growth capacities. Furthermore, news recently broke that long-time-bitcoiners Bitfarms are leaving Eastern Canada for Argentina. Bitfarms Chief Mining Officer Ben Gagnon commented, “Because of the rules and the restrictions that they put in place, it’s very limited growth opportunities in Quebec…”
On top of that, Scandinavian farms are reportedly full due to limited capacity and bull run expansions. Some Chinese miners report partnerships with South American and North African energy providers, but safety can be a concern in these regions. And, in Southeast Asia hydropower is abundant but regions are not foreign-business-friendly, plus the hot and humid weather inflicts heat damage and corrosion to mining gear. Lastly, some may move to Ukraine who is looking to attract miners to their nuclear power plants.
The moral of the story is that when the BTC price goes up, profitability increases, and more miners join the hash rate. Then Bitcoin critics and regulators launch their attacks. Miners can reduce their risk by decentralizing operations, and by making their own energy sources where available so that they are not fully reliant on government grids.
Further, rather than say that bitcoin mining uses fossil-fuels, we ask why are they being extracted? Policy makers need to get to the root cause. Bitcoin miners are not responsible for decarbonization policies and should not be scapegoated. Miners use what energy is available on the market. In truth, bitcoin miners are balancing energy loads, seeking renewables, and giving back to communities.
Bitcoin miners can also make the power cost and supply market reach a relative equilibrium. If the electricity price is low in an area, it attracts miners. These bitcoin miners improve the power plant’s infrastructure and encourage competitive electricity prices through supply and demand. And of course, they can use energy that is otherwise wasted.
As it seems, governments, researchers, and journalists are funded by corporates so they have a financial incentive to only see things through their ESG-colored-glasses. They misinterpret the hypocrisy of their own beliefs in a valiant effort to prove their virtuousness.
Lastly, for the economic critics. Bitcoin is designed to be an alternative to the current financial system which is doomed. “If you don’t believe me or don’t get it, I don’t have time to try to convince you, sorry” – Satoshi Nakamoto.
To our fellow bitcoin miners, mine on.