Changpeng Zhao does not like ambiguous words. Which is just as well: the crypto industry, in which he is a leading figure, is in turmoil and crying out for clarity.
The 45-year-old founder and chief executive of Binance, the world’s biggest cryptocurrency exchange, meets the Observer in an upmarket London hotel after one of the most tumultuous weeks in the short history of digital money.
Binance was forced to suspend its bitcoin business on 13 June for a few hours. On the same day, a major crypto lender, Celsius, also paused withdrawals. Then a big crypto hedge fund admitted it was in trouble. Finally, last Saturday, in a symbolic moment, bitcoin fell below $20,000. The cornerstone of crypto has lost more than half its value this year, leaving both professional and amateur investors nursing steep losses.
Often referred to by the nickname CZ (see-zee), Zhao is dressed in the classic tech-tycoon mix of formal dark suit with a company T-shirt and trainers. He says he is travelling from country to country at the moment, meeting with “different government officials, regulators”.
Despite his softly spoken manner, he is on a mission to convince. The conversation gets hooked on semantics at times – perhaps a response to the level of scrutiny he and his business are under. Asked if he still considers the recent crypto market moves to be “normal”, as he described them this month, Zhao says: “Normal depends on how you look at it … everybody has a different definition of normal … fluctuations in price is normal.”
There is a similar focus on meaning when Zhao is asked about money laundering – “the word is very different in different countries” – although he says Binance can “for sure” do a “good enough job that the regulators are happy”.
Last June, the Financial Conduct Authority ordered Binance to stop all regulated activities in Britain, saying it was “not capable of being effectively supervised”. Zhao has not given up, however, and says he is seeking a licence to operate.
Last week, Bloomberg ran an interview with him that raised the prospect of a deep regulatory winter for his business. He responded by tweeting to his 6.5 million followers: “I will stop doing interviews with news outlets that do clickbait titles.”
He clearly has a deep interest in media. Binance has announced plans for a $200m (£160m) investment in Forbes, the business publisher, as well as investing $500m in Elon Musk’s $44bn bid for Twitter.
Born in the coastal province of Jiangsu, north of Shanghai, Zhao followed his academic father to Canada when he was 12. After graduating from Montreal’s McGill University with a degree in computer science he worked on programming systems for the Tokyo Stock Exchange and Bloomberg. Zhao then moved to Shanghai in 2005, where he founded a high-frequency trading platform.
It was there that he was drawn into a conversation about bitcoin during a poker game in 2013. Binance was founded four years later.
The impact of recent events on Zhao’s fortune has been precipitous, according to one source. The Bloomberg Billionaires Index estimates that his wealth – based on a 90% stake in Binance and his control of its related US exchange – has fallen by more than $75bn since January to $20.6bn, as the wider market has more than halved over the same period to about $900bn.
Zhao laughs that off. “I actually have no idea how they come up with those numbers. You need to understand that net worth are just estimates,” he says. “When I look at my wallet, I don’t have that much. I don’t have anywhere close to any of those numbers.”
If you are wondering how Zhao could find $20bn in his wallet anyway, he is referring to his crypto wallet – the encrypted account on a blockchain where digital money is stored. Although all blockchain activity is technically public, most large investors try to keep their wallets pseudonymous, and Zhao’s has not been publicly identified.
Binance makes money by connecting buyers with sellers, for a fee. It provides an exchange for a range of currencies, from bitcoin to dogecoin and non-fungible tokens (NFTs). The company also offers to store those assets in a crypto wallet, and there is a range of financial products, including derivatives. It has 120 million customers globally and processes $1tn worth of trades a month, with Italy and France among the countries it is allowed to operate in, although customers can access it through the unregulated, offshore binance.com platform.
Last year, Zhao told the AP news agency that he only held bitcoin and his firm’s own crypto-asset, BNB.
One issue puzzling regulators is the lack of clarity about Binance’s structure. The holding company is registered in the Cayman Islands but the company describes itself as having “decentralised” ownership, with its terms and conditions referring to an “ecosystem”. For instance, its US exchange is separate from the main binance.com platform, whose operating base is not disclosed.
Some of the other questions over Binance are more serious. Reuters published a report in June that alleged it had served as a conduit for the laundering of at least $2.35bn in illicit funds from hacks, investment frauds and illegal drug sales.
Zhao says he disputes the claims “very heavily”, adding the public record afforded by blockchains should have enabled Binance to trace the transactions. “We ask for a list of transactions, not just a list of names. They provided zero.”
Reuters said: “We stand by our reporting on Binance, which has been consistent with the Trust Principles [its in-house guidelines] of accuracy and freedom from bias.”
The conversation moves on to those who have had savings wiped out by the crypto rout. “We absolutely have sympathy for anyone who has lost money in trading in any market, including stock markets,” says Zhao. He says financial literacy is key, and mentions his company’s own Binance Academy.
He concedes there could be more failures in the crypto market. But he is unambiguous that there will be survivors. “There may be other failures. But crypto will stay, bitcoin will stay, ethereum will stay, BNB will stay. That part is quite certain.”