Binance is the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange. However, the organization has been under fire lately, with the United States Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), while the current whereabouts of its founder and CEO Changpeng “CZ” Zhao, who has also been targeted by the authorities, are unknown.
But who, exactly, is Changpeng Zhao? What is his background? Just how rich is he? Let’s take a look and see what we can find out.
Changpeng Zhao was born in the Jiangsu province of China on 5 February 1977. Zhao’s father, Shengkai. a university lecturer, was accused of being a “pro-bourgeoise intellectual” by the country’s Communist authorities and was sent into exile in a rural area of the country not long after Zhao was born. In 1984, Shengkai left China and moved to Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, where he started work on a PhD at the University of British Columbia. Five years later, following the Chinese government’s crackdowns following the protests in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square, Zhao and his family joined his father.
It was then that Zhao , by now 12, drank fresh milk, a rare delicacy in his homeland, for the first time.
Zhao studied hard at school where, he claimed , he learned “humble values” from Taiwanese students. He held down some part-time jobs throughout his teenage years, serving as a volleyball referee, working at McDonald’s, and helping out at a Chevron petrol station. It was around this time that he earned the nickname CZ. After finishing high school in 1995, he moved across Canada to Montreal, Quebec, where he studied computer science at McGill University, having originally been a biology student. His interest in computing had been sparked when his father bought a 286 DOS computer for $7,000.
In 2000, Zhao dropped out of University after an internship on the Tokyo Stock Exchange turned into a full-time job. He entered the world of finance and technology, developing software for Bloomberg. In 2005, he moved back to China, settling in Shanghai and setting up the Fusion Systems IT and business consultancy firm.
Having moved across the world – twice – Zhao took a relatively global view of affairs, suggesting in one interview that international borders were “ just conceptual things that some people made up” and, when cryptocurrency came into being when Bitcoin was launched in the late 2000s, it pretty much made sense for him to get involved. Taking part in a late-night poker game with Chinese Bitcoin (BTC) enthusiast Bobby Lee and venture capitalist Ron Cao, he found out about cryptocurrency and, soon after, sold his apartment and invested $1 million in Bitcoin.
With Shanghai becoming a center for the burgeoning crypto industry, Zhao invested in blockchain finance and carried out work for blockchain companies, including a spell at Chinese crypto exchange OKCoin, and, in 2017, he founded Binance. The idea was to, as an early company slogan, stated “exchange the world”. With a name that was a portmanteau of binary and finance, it aimed to be at the cutting edge, creating a site where it was easy, convenient, and comparatively inexpensive to buy, sell and trade crypto.
Binance took off in a massive way, with its launch coming not too long before the world of crypto entered a bubble, with prices skyrocketing in late 2017 and into early 2018. Although the bubble burst, leading to a so-called crypto winter, Zhao had already been able to bolster both his company’s and his own reputations, making the front page of the prestigious Forbes magazine.
As crypto expanded, so did the sights of regulators across the globe. China, which had initially been a good place for crypto companies, started to crack down. Binance also opened offices in Japan, Singapore and Malta but, when the regulations got too tight, they exited those markets. By early 2019, Binance was claiming to have no headquarters at all and, with a variety of subsidiaries across the world, it looked as if the company was, perhaps appropriately, decentralized, at least in its structure if not in its overall operations.
With a variety of different subsidiaries and offices around the world, there was always going to be more and more interest from regulators. While Binance blossomed during the crypto bloom of early 2021, there was bad news from the UK, where the country’s Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) barred Binance from operating in May that year.
In 2022, crypto went through a bad period, with a series of market crashes. One of them may have, inadvertently, been partially caused by Zhao himself. Shortly before the FTX exchange collapsed in November, it looked as if Binance would take over Sam Bankman-Fried’s stricken business, only to change its mind and condemn FTX to bankruptcy, with FTX founder Bankman-Fried set to face trial on fraud charges.
In 2023, though, things looked like they were starting to fall apart for Zhao and his exchange. American regulators started to get more and more interested in crypto following the collapse of FTX and Binance, which had been under investigation by the US Department of Justice over money laundering claims since 2018, was perhaps the logical target. In March this year, the US Commodities Futures Trading Commission (CFTC) charged Binance, Zhao and the company’s former Chief Compliance Officer Samuel Lim with breaching derivatives rules and willfully evading American law.
In a court filing , the CFTC said: “Binance, under Zhao’s direction and control and with Lim’s willful and substantial assistance, has solicited and accepted orders, accepted property to margin, and operated a facility for the trading of futures, options, swaps, and leveraged retail commodity transactions involving digital assets that are commodities including Bitcoin (BTC), Ether (ETH), and Litecoin (LTC) for persons in the United States.”
Zhao dismissed the claims, saying: “Upon an initial review, the complaint appears to contain an incomplete recitation of facts, and we do not agree with the characterization of many of the issues alleged in the complaint.”
Things got worse for Zhao and Binance in June, when the United States Securities & Exchange Commission sued Binance on 13 charges, including claiming that it was trading in unregistered securities, as well as failing to prevent people in the US from accessing Binance and had misled investors.
While Binance was quick to refute the watchdog’s claims, saying they intended to defend themselves “vigorously”, Zhao’s response was a bit more confusing. On 7 June, the SEC filed papers calling for “alternative service” in the case, saying that they were not able to track Zhao down to serve him his court summons. While the man they call CZ has been active on Twitter, no one is entirely sure where in the world he actually is. We have asked Binance for information, but are yet to receive a reply.
In an interview with Fortune in April this year, Zhao said: “You find out, okay, this new thing has different rules in different places. So it’s not so much that we want to bend the rules or even avoid them, we just want to look for places that are more favorable.” American regulators will want to know whether Zhao’s bending of rules has turned into law breaking.
Changpeng Zhao is, as of 12 June 2023, worth $10.5 billion, according to Forbes. He has made this money partially through crypto trading but mainly as the CEO and founder of Binance, the world’s largest cryptocurrency exchange. Keep in mind that, with his crypto holding, Zhao may well have a lot more money than he is listed as having.
Although, by any measurement, Changpeng Zhao is spectacularly wealthy, he is a long way off from being the world’s richest person. According to Forbes, he is the joint $167th richest person, tied with Russian oligarch Suleiman Kerimov and Shein online fashion retail firm founder Chris Xu. For what it is worth, Forbes said the richest person in the world was luxury goods magnate Bernard Arnault.
It is not entirely clear how much of Binance Changpeng Zhao owns, but reports in 2022 suggested that he owned as much as 90% of the company, with Bloomberg giving an oddly specific figure of 86%.
This is a question that we don’t really know the answer to. A recent court filing in the SEC’s lawsuit against Binance implied that the US regulator did not know, either. While he was born in China, Changpeng Zhao is a Canadian citizen. According to reports from Fortune, he has homes in Paris, France and Dubai, United Arab Emirates. We have asked Binance whether they could tell us where CZ is currently, but have not received a reply.
The United States Securities and Exchange Commission is currently suing Binance over 13 charges, including selling unregistered securities, misleading investors and failing to prevent people in the United States accessing its services.