China’s central bank has accelerated the testing of its new sovereign digital currency and, for the first time, will include some foreign consumer brands in the program.

American chains Starbucks, McDonald’s and Subway were named on the People’s Bank of China (PBOC)’s list of firms that will test the digital currency in small transactions with 19 local businesses.

The global names will be joined by local hotels, convenience stores, a stuffed bun shop, a bakery, a bookstore and a gym, according to details revealed at a promotional event in the Xiong’an New Area, a city being built south of Beijing, news portal Sina.com reported.

American chains Starbucks, McDonald’s and Subway were named on the People’s Bank of China’s list of firms that will test the digital currency in small transactions with 19 local businesses. (Picture: Bloomberg)

The inclusion of businesses providing everyday goods and services marks an expansion of the PBOC’s testing. It follows a previous disclosure that last week in Suzhou the digital currency was used to pay half public sector workers’ travel subsidies for May.

Wednesday’s promotional event was organised by the local branch of the National Development and Reform Commission, the powerful planning agency, and attended by representatives of the Big Four state-owned banks and two of the country’s internet giants – Alibaba and Tencent.

China has not released a timetable for launching the digital yuan, but last week’s reports on new testing have fanned speculation that it could be imminent.

The tests were reportedly accelerated after Facebook launched its Libra project in June last year, an attempt to create a global digital currency pegged to a basket of currencies and backed by global commercial giants.

The Libra Association, the consortium managing the project, announced changes last week in an attempt to win regulatory approval and pave the way for an official launch sometime later this year. The consortium said it would create multiple digital units tied to existing currencies such as the US dollar or the euro, rather than a single token based on a basket of currencies.

China’s official digital currency, known as Digital Currency Electronic Payment (DCEP), came into the public spotlight last week when a screenshot of a test version of an app developed by the Agricultural Bank of China circulated online.

The digital currency app has several basic functions, similarly to other Chinese online payment platforms such as Alipay and WeChat Pay – the country’s two most popular online payment tools – allowing users to make and receive payments, and transfer money.

“It’s certain that the DCEP is now in its final testing stage and should be officially launched,” BlockVC, an investment firm, said in a research note.

The PBOC’s digital currency research institute confirmed last Friday that testing was being conducted in four cities: Shenzhen, Suzhou, Xiong’an and Chengdu. In addition, venues for the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing and Zhangjiakou will join the testing program in the future.

The institute, which was inaugurated in 2017, said that the test versions and applications of the currency had not been finalized.

The project testing is based on two principles: the central bank issues the virtual money to commercial banks who then pass it on to consumers, and that is aimed at replacing cash in all transactions.

China is the first major economy to publicly announce plans for a sovereign digital currency, aiming to better control the rapid rise of digital payments worldwide.

The PBOC has, however, cracked down on the trading of other digital currencies and banned banks from accepting cryptocurrencies, which it views as a risk to financial stability.