Revisiting Ripple (not the wine) amid China’s Bitcoin clamp-down

[UPDATE Jan 6, 2018: With the sudden boom in Ripple’s price lately, I’ve had some inquiries from readers wanting to buy Ripple XRP with Chinese yuan. The Ripple vouchers mentioned in this post are no longer for sale on TaoBao, and as far as I know, there is no convenient way to buy XRP with yuan available now. It is possible to buy Bitshares, Bitcoin, Litecoin or Ethereum over the counter (OTC) with the apps I discuss in this more recent post.]

JISHOU, HUNAN — Out of curiosity yesterday, I checked up on Ripple, a cryptocurrency I honestly had not used or paid much attention lately, just to see what all the buzz about it was. I was pleasantly surprised for two reasons.

One, the value of Ripple against the dollar (well, cents, really) has more than doubled since last year. It seems Bitcoin’s inherent limitations have encouraged investors to look at altcoins — the bazillions of alternative electronic currencies to Bitcoin — resulting in sharp price spikes for several since January.

Second, it’s once again possible to buy Ripple tokens (XRP) using the Chinese shopping website, Taobao, or payment processors like Alipay. So, I gave it a try and it worked! I’ll explain why this is noteworthy later on.

Since I’ve been focusing on Bitcoin in China lately, I’ve been spending more time reading up on Bitcoin and the other cryptocurrencies, including Ripple. A lot has been happening there, and not just because of China’s regulation of Bitcoin.

Bitcoin and similar electronic currency tokens verify transactions using a public electronic ledger, called the blockchain. In other words, if I send you some Bitcoin, it is entered on the blockchain, as is your receiving it. Computers which collectively monitor Bitcoin transactions verify the sending and receiving. This system prevents fraud by guaranteeing there was real money backing the Bitcoin I just sent you, and not some fake computer jiggery. It also ensures no one can divert that money into their Bitcoin wallet.

Most transactions are finalized after three independent verifications; others require up to six. Before Bitcoin got to be A Thing, verification times were fairly quick, taking no more than 30 minutes. Now that there are millions of dollars of Bitcoins moving around every day worldwide, the blockchain has grown to immense size, and verifications sometimes can take an hour or more.

In other words, Bitcoin has a scaling issue.

The Bitcoin community is wrestling with the problem by proposing technical solutions to the verification lag time, but as yet there’s been no consensus on the cure.

So, investors and users are looking to other cryptocurrencies as alternatives to Bitcoin. The ones getting the most attention now include Ethereum, Dash, Monero, Zcash, and Ripple. Even an old-timer like Litecoin, which has hovered around $4 for months, suddenly spiked in value last month, rising to almost $7.

[DISCLOSURE STATEMENT: I hold small stakes in each of these.]

Each of these offers a different set of advantages in usability. Litecoin, which has often been described as the silver to Bitcoin’s gold, requires less computing power for its verification system than Bitcoin, and verification often takes only minutes. Dash, Monero and Zcash offer privacy and anonymity, and faster verification times than even Litecoin.

Ripple is nearly as old as Bitcoin and Litecoin. Unlike the others I’ve mentioned, Ripple tokens were “pre-mined,” which means no more will be created. As originally conceived, Ripple was less a replacement for money — dollars or euros — and more a conduit for that money from place to place. In other words, you can’t buy things with XRP, as with Bitcoin or Litecoin, but you can send money quickly and easily across the ‘Net, using “gateways” to exchange XRP for local currency.

Several major banks are considering using the Ripple network instead of the SWIFT system for interbank transfers, so Ripple has gained some traction over its relatively short career.

Ripple tokens jumped sharply in value just a couple of weeks ago.

Well, anyway, yesterday I read that Ripple prices had more than doubled in four weeks, and seemed destined for greater gains. So, I figured I should buy some — at 4 cents per 1 XRP it’s cheap enough. I exchanged about $20 worth of Bitcoin for XRP475 on the Kraken exchange. Maybe Ripple will increase in value. If not, $20 won’t kill me.

Meanwhile, I wondered whether I could buy Ripple with Chinese yuan. I had written about using Ripple in China back in 2014, but I hadn’t given Ripple much thought after China’s regulators shut off buying Ripple vouchers on Taobao later that year.

Remember when I said regulations and restrictions in China are mutable? Wait long enough, and what is forbidden now will be possible later. And so it was with Ripple. RippleFox and RippleChina both offer XRP vouchers in Taobao, as was done in 2014. Vouchers are commonly sold online for gamers to buy in-universe currency with Chinese yuan. Ripple entrepreneurs are using that method to allow customers to indirectly buy XRP.

As a test, I bought a voucher on Taobao for 99.99 yuan (about $14.50) through RippleFox. A few minutes later, it showed up in my computer’s Ripple wallet as 100 yuan. The wallet allowed me to instantly exchange the yuan for XRP — no need to visit a gateway’s website as was necessary in 2014 — leaving me with 350 XRP.

Here’s a screenshot of my transactions yesterday. Note that I am not sharing any private information, unless someone wants to send some XRP to my wallet address top right.

This process is much easier than in 2014, when I had to visit a gateway’s website to exchange yuan for XRP. Now, the wallet does the exchange and I can then send those XRP seamlessly to another Ripple address, including exchanges where I might swap the XRP for Bitcoin or some other token.

As before, it offers another pathway for moving money across borders, though with added steps and somewhat less convenience than the Bitcoin exchanges offered until regulators clamped down on them in January. I haven’t worked out the costs involved in using Ripple to obtain Bitcoins, but I suspect it’s cheaper than buying Bitcoins off or BitKan, where sellers tack on a premium of 10% or more over the market price.

For anyone interested in the mechanics of exchanging yuan for XRP, I intend to write a page about it later today. It’s relatively easy, but all the instructions at RippleFox and RippleChina are in Chinese, so I’m going to offer an English language explanation.

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