Binance hid substantial links to China for several years, contradicting executives’ claims that the crypto exchange left the country after a clampdown on the industry in late 2017, according to internal company documents seen by the Financial Times.
Chief executive Changpeng Zhao and others holding senior positions repeatedly instructed Binance employees to hide the company’s Chinese presence. This included an office in use until at least the end of 2019, and one Chinese bank that was used to pay some employee salaries.
“We no longer publish our office addresses . . . people in China can directly say that our office is not in China,” Zhao said in a company messaging group in November 2017, seen by the FT.
The documents underscore the extent to which Binance, now the world’s largest crypto exchange, has sought to obscure the extent and location of its operations as regulators scrutinise crypto-related activity. Zhao has said most of Binance’s employees — other than “a small number of customer service agents” — left China after 2017 when the country intensified its crackdown on crypto.
The exchange was sued by US regulators on Monday over allegations it had illegally served American clients.
The Commodity Futures Trading Commission also alleged Binance “intentionally” did not disclose the location of its executive offices and that statements that its headquarters was wherever Zhao was located reflected “a deliberate approach to attempt to avoid regulation”.
In late 2019, employees at the company discussed a media report that claimed Binance was opening an office in Beijing. “Reminder: publicly, we have offices in Malta, Singapore, and Uganda,” one message said. “Please do not confirm any offices anywhere else, including China.”
Binance told the Financial Times in a statement: “It is unfortunate that anonymous sources are citing ancient history (in crypto terms) and dramatically mischaracterising events. This is not an accurate picture of Binance’s operations.”
In public, Zhao has repeatedly denied that Binance is a Chinese company, including in a blog post last year when he said that only a “small number of customer service agents” remained in China by late-2018. The Binance chief was born in China, although he has Canadian citizenship after moving to Canada as a child.
“The original founding team members that were based in Shanghai left China just two months after the company was organised, before the company was even incorporated, following crackdowns on the crypto industry in China,” Binance said, adding that the exchange had “never been registered or incorporated in China”.
The CFTC’s lawsuit comes as Binance’s American affiliate, Binance US, faces scrutiny in Washington over its proposed $1bn purchase of assets belonging to Voyager Digital, a bankrupt crypto lender based in the US. The acquisition is being reviewed by the Committee on Foreign Investment in the United States (Cfius), a government agency that determines if overseas investments present national security risks.
“The United States is in one of the most consequential geopolitical contests in history. To the extent the government seeks to influence this new means of finance, Cfius will have concerns over any deal that traces back to China,” said one former Cfius official.
Binance said its US affiliate licenses the technology of its parent but is an operationally independent entity. However, links between the two exist, including with Zhao himself, who is Binance US’s ultimate beneficial owner.
“To be clear, the Chinese government, like any other government, has no access to Binance data except where we are responding to lawful and legitimate law enforcement requests,” Binance said.
Internal company documents reveal how important China was to Binance even after the country tightened the screws on crypto in 2017. In 2018, employees were told wages would be paid through a bank in Shanghai. A year later, employees on payroll in China were asked to attend a tax session in an office located in China.
A Binance employee shared information about a passport processing office in Shanghai, instructing that non-Shanghai residents “must have paid social security for one year in Shanghai before [they] can apply”.
Another employee welcomed suggestions for a Shanghai recruiting team in mid-2018. “Hope everyone can enjoy working here,” the person said. Weeks later, a senior employee issued a warning: “Dear all, please DO NOT wear any apparels or accessories with Binance logos at or around our office locations. It is strictly prohibited.”
An office located in Shanghai was used for employee training sessions and events, the documents showed. The company was hiring staff who included a data analyst and a clearing specialist in Shanghai well into 2019, two years after Zhao said Binance left China.
Binance has also gone to great lengths to disguise its Chinese presence through the use of virtual private networks, software that masks the location of the user in order to gain access to a service.
A Binance employee onboarding document instructed newcomers based in China to install VPNs on their devices. The CFTC lawsuit on Monday also alleged Binance instructed US customers to use VPNs to obscure their location.
“We also have lots of non-Shanghai employees that come to Shanghai office frequently, and would be inconvenient to exclude that part of the team,” said one Binance employee in November 2019 when the company was considering opening a Shanghai office admin chat group.
The FT could not determine whether the offices cited in company communications until almost 2020 were still in use, but one former employee said many of the company’s key developers were still in China.
Binance added that it did not operate in China, nor did it have any technology including servers or data in the country.
Additional reporting by Hudson Lockett in Hong Kong
China’s actions against the crypto industry
The People’s Bank of China and other regulators issue a ban on banks handling bitcoin transactions, citing its potential for use in money laundering. Leading Chinese crypto exchanges announce they will stop accepting renminbi deposits after the central bank tells payments processors to stop conducting transactions with them.
The PBoC announces an immediate ban on initial coin offerings, describing the issuance and sale of such tokens as “essentially an act of unapproved and illegal public financing”. Local media report more than 60 crypto exchanges have been targeted for investigation and many exchanges based in China move overseas to avoid being shut down.
State media say authorities will block access to more than 120 foreign cryptocurrency sites after crypto users in mainland China migrate to offshore exchanges.
China’s cabinet publishes a draft list of “unsafe, wasteful or polluting” industries to be targeted for elimination, which includes the mining of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies — only to remove the sector from a final list published in November.
The State Council calls for a crackdown on bitcoin mining and trading activities, culminating in November as the central bank and other regulators issue a total ban on Chinese citizens engaging in any form of crypto transactions, trading or investment, both domestically and offshore.