Changpeng Zhao, the undisputed king of crypto

Changpeng Zhao, the undisputed king of crypto

Zhao, who founded Binance in Shanghai in 2017, has emerged as the most central and most visible figure in crypto
Zhao, who founded Binance in Shanghai in 2017, has emerged as the most central and most visible figure in crypto. Photo: PATRICIA DE MELO MOREIRA / AFP/File
Source: AFP

PAY ATTENTION: Сheck out news that is picked exactly for YOU ➡️ find the “Recommended for you” block on the home page and enjoy!

At parties, on stages and in meetings, Changpeng Zhao is rarely seen without his black polo shirt, emblazoned with the insignia of his crypto firm Binance.

The look is vital to the myth of Zhao, the boy from rural China who once flipped burgers for a living in Canada but now has a personal fortune of $17 billion, according to Forbes.

"I'm a small entrepreneur," he told AFP earlier this year when comparing himself to Elon Musk, adding for good measure that he was just a "normal guy" in comparison to the world's richest man.

Yet Binance has cornered more than half of the crypto-trading market and its main rival, FTX, was all but wiped out this week -- elevating his company to the pinnacle of the crypto world.

Read also

FTX collapse gives crypto sector 'another black eye'

And 45-year-old Zhao, who founded Binance in Shanghai in 2017, has emerged as the most central and most visible figure in crypto.

Hyperactive on social media, popping up at every possible tech conference and rarely out of TV studios, he expanded his reach even further recently by shovelling $500 million to Musk to buy Twitter.

PAY ATTENTION: Subscribe to Digital Talk newsletter to receive must-know business stories and succeed BIG!

Yet his breakneck rise has been dogged by controversy.

His cryptocurrency exchange has been repeatedly accused of facilitating money laundering and sanctions busting -- claims it denies -- and last month it was hacked for around $100 million.

True grit?

The rags-to-riches tale of Zhao's life has become almost mythical in crypto circles.

His early life in China was scarred by hardship when his parents were denounced and sent to the countryside for a dose of peasant hardship.

Read also

WHO chief Tedros walking tightrope on Tigray

After the family emigrated to Canada a decade later, young Zhao had to work at McDonald's and a petrol station to help the family survive.

This instilled "drive, grit, and initiative" into the young man and helped to create today's "crypto leader", according to the Binance website.

Zhao's nomadic childhood informed his adult life, which has seen him crop up everywhere from New York to Tokyo.

The official legend has it that he caught the bitcoin bug during a conversation around a poker table, and started Binance a few years later in Shanghai.

He quickly left China and has since hinted that he might set up Binance in many jurisdictions -- Singapore, France, Malta, Dubai, Bahrain -- without definitively committing to any of them.

He often says he "favours good regulation over bad" and dismisses the idea of a company needing headquarters as a "complex issue", before swiftly changing the subject.

Read also

Crypto kid Sam Bankman-Fried falls prey to Binance

This opacity has made him a popular figure among crypto purists, who loathe any form of regulation, and has kept regulators from knocking too hard at his door -- so far.

Musk flirtation

However, like many crypto companies, there has long been a whiff of scandal around Binance.

It has been accused of pursuing growth at any cost and failing to properly check the identities of customers, allowing money laundering and sanctions busting to flourish.

Zhao has feuded openly with journalists over the claims -- accusing outlets including Reuters of peddling fake news.

However, a Reuters story this month suggesting Binance had handled billions of dollars in transactions involving Iranian entities proved harder to brush off.

Binance admitted in a blog post -- not written by Zhao -- that it had "interacted with certain Iran-based nexuses" and had moved to freeze the accounts.

It remains to be seen what further action might come Binance's way for the sanctions faux-pas, but Zhao's bruising run-ins with the media have seen him increasingly champion the free speech absolutism also favoured by Musk.

Read also

Veteran French designer Philippe Starck now looks to space

Surprisingly, given their shared interests and newly entwined businesses, the two men have not met in person.

"He's busy, I'm busy," Zhao told a press conference at the Web Summit in Portugal in early November.

But ever mindful of his blue-collar image, he added: "If we happen to be in the same city, I wouldn't mind it. If he's a good drinker."

Source: AFP

Authors:
AFP avatar

AFP AFP text, photo, graphic, audio or video material shall not be published, broadcast, rewritten for broadcast or publication or redistributed directly or indirectly in any medium. AFP news material may not be stored in whole or in part in a computer or otherwise except for personal and non-commercial use. AFP will not be held liable for any delays, inaccuracies, errors or omissions in any AFP news material or in transmission or delivery of all or any part thereof or for any damages whatsoever. As a newswire service, AFP does not obtain releases from subjects, individuals, groups or entities contained in its photographs, videos, graphics or quoted in its texts. Further, no clearance is obtained from the owners of any trademarks or copyrighted materials whose marks and materials are included in AFP material. Therefore you will be solely responsible for obtaining any and all necessary releases from whatever individuals and/or entities necessary for any uses of AFP material.

Online view pixel