The renminbi (RMB) is the official currency of the People’s Republic of China. The Chinese currency has historically and internationally often been referred to as the “yuan” and this is still sometimes the case. Translations into English always face the problems involved in the incompatibilities involved in converting a pictorial language such as Chinese and Japanese into a language consisting of a conventional alphabet. The yuan remains the name of the basic unit of the renminbi, so perhaps the simplest way of attempting to explain the difference is that the situation is similar to the distinction between the terms “pound” and “sterling” in our own currency. The name of the basic unit is the pound, but the currency is sterling.
During the early years of the regime, the economy was effectively closed to foreign trade, so an exchange rate did not really exist in practice. Renminbi could only be used in China: the currency was not readily exchangeable abroad. Foreigners were not allowed to buy or use the currency in China either. Tourism was severely restricted, and any businessmen or traders permitted into China were forced to use foreign exchange certificates instead.
Since the 1970s, China has slowly become more open to western trade. In 1972, US President Nixon made a historic visit to China, and in 1978 the mainland Chinese economy was opened to Western trade for the first time. Conversion of the currency remained difficult, not least because of the unrealistically high value imposed on the currency by the Chinese state. Throughout the 1980s and 90s, the currency slowly became more convertible, as the value of the renminbi gradually became more compatible with its real international value. This process was reinforced by the transfer of sovereignty of the economic powerhouse territory of Hong Kong to China in 1997, making it essential for the Hong Kong economy to be integrated with that of its new mainland masters.
As a result of this process, this opening of China to western trade has tended to accelerate still further in more recent years, as state control of the internal economy has been gradually loosened. It’s not exactly a “free market”, but certainly the renminbi is now openly traded on the currency markets and few controls on tourism and foreign access to the Chinese currency remain. But even to this day, the currency is not allowed to float freely in value, but instead must remain within a narrow band specified by the Chinese Government.
There are many Chinese nationals living in the United Kingdom, and the renminbi is frequently used to send money to friends and relatives remaining in mainland China and the new autonomous Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong. Hence it is certainly not uncommon for the currency to be used to make online payments involved in playing the ancient colonial game of bingo! Many UK regulated sites accept the currency, usually through the use of the centrally controlled UnionPay debit cards, which remain under the authority of the People’s Bank of China.