Zhao Changpeng used to do odd jobs to support his family. But that was before he became a cryptocurrency king. On January 10, he was worth US$96 billion, according to the Bloomberg Billionaires index, making him the world’s 14th richest person and the richest in Asia above India’s Mukesh Ambani.

Since then, tech stocks have taken a tumble, seeing him slip back down the rankings, but still the Chinese Canadian has astounded many with his sudden rise to ultra-wealthy status.

Zhao has been called a pioneer for his daring take on cryptocurrency, but his courage has clearly worked. Known as “CZ” in crypto circles, the businessman is now keen to teach others how to enter this opaque and often poorly understood world. On his company Binance’s blog page, he even answers questions from fans, which has helped turn him into a cult figure in the business.

But what is there to know about the man himself?

Zhao Changpeng, CEO of Binance, speaks at the Delta Summit, a blockchain and digital innovation event in Malta in 2018. Photo: Reuters

Who is he?

Zhao was born in China’s Jiangsu province. When he was 12, his father, who was a university professor, was exiled as China was going through the Cultural Revolution at the time. The family moved to Vancouver, Canada, and in a Binance blog post, Zhao claims to have done odd jobs to support his family, even working at McDonald’s.

Zhao Changpeng visiting the British House of Lords. Photo: @changpengzhao/Instagram

Zhao studied computer science and, in 2013 during a poker game, he was encouraged to put some money into bitcoin. In a company blog post, he said he later got so invested in bitcoin that he even sold his flat to buy more. In 2017, he founded cryptocurrency exchange Binance, and after a wobbly start, focused on creating high volumes at low fees. The strategy worked and now Zhao is raking in the cash.

Zhao Chengping, taking advertising into his own hands. Photo: @changpengzhao/Instagram

The varying numbers

Bloomberg reports its estimate of his wealth is based on Zhao’s 90 per cent stake in Binance, which has profited hugely from the cryptocurrency boom. Fortune says that the varying estimates of Zhao’s wealth are because “little is known about the finances of Binance”. They do go on to say that Binance is the world’s biggest crypto exchange, processing as much as US$170 billion in trades in a day, but that the company does not disclose its financial reports.

The skyrocketing wealth that has taken him into the top 2o richest people on the planet is all the more astonishing given that Bloomberg’s numbers do not include his personal holdings of cryptocurrency.

Zhao Changpeng, founder and chief executive of cryptocurrency exchange operator Binance, speaks at the Consensus: Singapore event in September 2021. Photo: Handout

Controversy over Binance’s customers

The Wall Street Journal reports that, in 2021, China made all cryptocurrency-related transactions illegal, effectively banishing Binance. Now, its offices are based in Singapore and it’s listed in the Cayman Islands. Meanwhile, the US Department of Justice and the Internal Revenue Service have opened investigations into whether the company is being used as a means to launder money and for tax evasion.

Zhao Changpeng in Singapore in November 2021, speaking at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum. Photo: @changpengzhao/Instagram

Rankings aren’t important

Zhao spoke at the Bloomberg New Economy Forum in Singapore in November 2021 about Binance’s impressive rise to riches. He said on a slow day Binance does around US$40 billion worth of transactions. Just two years before, it was doing US$10 billion.

Despite the tremendous growth, he doesn’t seem to care about wealth or rankings themselves. On Twitter on January 10, Zhao said, “Don’t worry about rankings. Focus on how many people you can help.”

The next day he added: “Unpopular opinion: instead of wealth rankings, there should be a ranking of charity and philanthropy efforts.”

Zhao Changpeng has donned a dishdasha at events in Dubai. Photo: @changpengzhao/Instagram

His Dubai pad

Zhao is now regularly seen in the UAE, being spotted mixing with royalty and celebrities at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last December. DNA India reports he bought a house in Dubai in October, and often hosts lavish dinner parties on Palm Jumeirah island. He said it was a show of support for the “progressive” region who are supportive of cryptocurrency.

Note: This story was originally published on SCMP and has been republished on this website.