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With his head held high, General Li Xin of the Qin state marched his triumphant army through the gates of Línzī, the capital city of the Qi kingdom in 221 BC. But unlike many of the previous victories he had presided over these past decades, this one was unique in that his spear and armour were not stained by the blood of the conquered as had been the case many times earlier.
This was because the Qi army had been caught off guard by the Qin advance through its lesser-protected south. Combined with being faced by the Qin’s overwhelmingly superior army outside their capital, king Qí Wáng Jiàn surrendered his people and empire to be absorbed into that of the Qin.
For Yíng Zhèng—the king of Qin—this triumph marked the final step in a plan that had been over a quarter-century in the making. With the fall of the Qi, he had finally succeeded in uniting the seven Warring States of the region under one ruler. He then named himself Emperor, forevermore being referred to by his subjects as Qín Shǐ Huáng.
Almost immediately, Qin Shi Huang implemented new laws that would homogenise the people of his new realm. Weights and measures that differed throughout the seven previously independent kingdoms were standardised as per the Emperor’s wishes, as was the imposition of a new standard currency.
Previously, each of the warring states enjoyed their own diverse ways of denominating currency. Several used spade-like coins made of bronze as currency. The Chǔ used gold ingots for larger transactions, as well as copper and lead coins resembling the nose of an ant called yǐ bí for general trade. And in the lastly-absorbed state of Qi, bronze coins shaped like knives were the predominant way the populace exchanged value.
But when Shi Huang took power, these all suddenly became illegal to use. He mandated the use of small bronze coins with a square hole in the middle to be the only legal tender that was accepted throughout his new empire which was called the bàn liǎng.
For many citizens of the Qin Empire, this posed a significant problem. Millions of people who previously held their wealth and savings in other coinage of the annexed states were now forced to use something else. Although Shi Huang did allow the exchange of other monies into the ban liang for some time, many lost large portions of their life savings to unfair exchange rates, as some of the existing coins couldn’t be exchanged for a ban liang of equal value.
The other major problem for the people of the new empire was how the ban liang helped create inflation, devaluing people’s savings over time. As the minting system of the coin was so centralised, it often led to an oversupply of the coin, resulting in inflation throughout the realm. Something that was solely the government’s fault, but disproportionately affected the population as the ban liang became devalued, and increased the general cost of living.
For the Emperor, the ban liang sent a message to the people: the centralised power of the Emperor now dictated the terms to all the people of the Qin. And by doing so, Shi Huang also succeeded in the systematic erasure of some of the diverse culture and practices of the former states, as well as the loss of wealth of many of its people.
Today, we know the Qin Empire by its modern name of China. And even over twenty-two centuries later, we’re today faced with a modern currency crisis that scarily mirrors what people faced due to the imposition of the ban liang.
In my birth nation of Australia, several major banks have quietly begun restricting their own customers from accessing cash at certain branches around the country over the past six months.
Commonwealth, ANZ, and NAB—three of the nation’s four major banks—have opened digital-only locations where no cash is kept on the premises. Branches where customers have no option but to conduct solely electronic transactions, and where the accepting or handing out of cash is totally refused.
The banks have suggested that this is because people just don’t need nor want to use cash anymore, and as a result, have limited access to these services. Something that over the past five years, has caused over 1600 bank branches in Australia to be shuttered forever, with a disproportionate number of these closures affecting regional communities outside state capitals.
On top of this, Australian banks have restricted customers from spending their own money on cryptocurrency. CommBank says it’s because crypto is inherently risky, and therefore mandates customers can’t send more than $10,000 AUD per month to exchanges. Personal choice be damned.
However, surveys show that the vast majority of Australians don’t want any of this to happen. Most people want to be able to access their own money in whatever way they choose, whenever they want to. But the banks are throwing a middle finger up at Australians, and just doing what they want instead. And in this increasing push to go digital, the big four are posting record yearly profits as they rinse more cash out of their customers, while providing less service in return.
Although you think I may be biased in focusing solely on my birth country of Australia, this digital currency trend isn’t solely one that affects the Land Down Under.
Only a few years ago Sweden was predicted to become our planet’s first completely cashless society by 2023, but this forecast how now been pushed back to 2030. Back in 2016, the government of India took part in a dramatic act of demonetisation, invalidating a significant part of its circulating money by making all 500 and 1000 rupee notes obsolete; a move that cost some Indians part of their life savings when many of them couldn’t exchange their cash in these denominations on time. And in many European nations like France, Belgium, and Greece, there are already limits on how much cash can be used in a single transaction; in some cases, a maximum ceiling limiting cash transactions of only €500 or under.
We also can’t forget about the former Qin Empire in this regard either. In today’s modern China, the government has already created one of the most restrictive and surveilled currency systems in the world, that can already penalise citizens for “improper” actions they take in society, and restrict citizens from freely purchasing items or accessing their own money.
But our governments aren’t solely the beneficiaries of the ability to laud extra control over a population in a digital payment society. It’s a gift for banks as well.
Every time you pay for something with cash, your bank earns nothing on that transaction. But it’s a completely different story when it comes to digital payments. With almost every swipe of your credit card, online transfer to a merchant, or the friendly beep that comes from a successful purchase via Apple Pay, your bank or other financial institution earns a small percentage of that sale.
Any increase in digital payments is a boon for the banking sector’s profit margins, so it’s obvious they want cash to vanish.
Over the coming years, your government and banks are going to increasingly attempt to sell you on the idea of a completely digital economy. They will woo you with axioms like transparency, efficiency, speed, and simplicity, as well as the two most insidious buzzwords that are almost always seen together, safety and security.
But make no mistake, these aren’t the reasons they want any of this to happen. Instead, it’s all about profit and control.
I am willing to admit that the creation of a completely digitised currency system can bring efficiency, homogeneity, and unity to a society, just like the ban liang did for the Qin Empire. But it also comes with many downsides.
It overwhelmingly stifles the agency and diversity of how citizens choose to trade on their own terms. It inevitably funnels an increasingly larger percentage of the value an individual possesses into the banking sector, consolidating more wealth into the hands of a few. It allows our overlords to tax us via inflation even more easily than they can already. And most disturbingly, it makes money—an essential tool for survival in the modern world—a tool to further impose control on a population by our governments.
For the people of the Qin Dynasty, from the lowly peasant farmer to the merchant and scholarly class, the ban liang was a crushing weight that denoted an empire imposing its iron will upon them. Financial shackles they bore on their wrists every time they took part in a financial exchange. Shackles that hampered their ability to create personal wealth in their own lives.
Modern digital-only currency systems are no different.
Our governments don’t need to possess more power than they already do. And our banks—some of the most profitable entities in history—don’t need to make more money.
But that’s exactly what they’re trying to achieve. Because if there’s one thing that history shows us above all, is that those with power can never, ever, have enough of it.
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