A woman living with him, Zhao Tingting, has her own connection to imprisoned billionaire Mr. Xiao. She was once a senior official at a company he co-founded, which had business dealings with parents of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
Ms. Zhao, 43, who no longer holds this position, now teaches piano. Asked about Mr. Liu’s purchase of the van Gogh, she replied, “Do you think our house comes close to the price of this painting?
She and Mr. Liu were “just ordinary little employees”, she said, with no connection to the Tomorrow Group, the set of companies controlled by the billionaire. “We have no right to make decisions and no right to know anything.”
The couple appear to have been “white gloves”, a term used in China to describe proxy shareholders intended to hide the true owners of the companies. Among the thousands of pages of documents providing details about the Tomorrow Group is a spreadsheet listing dozens of such people. At least four offshore companies were registered in Mr. Liu’s name.
These companies were part of Mr. Xiao’s vast business. He had shown great promise, being admitted to the prestigious Peking University in China at 14 and leading students during the Tiananmen protests in 1989. He sided with the government, an allegiance that would help him become one of the richest men in the country, acquiring control of banks, insurers and brokers, as well as stakes in coal, cement and real estate.
Unlike the many brash billionaires he has done business with, Mr. Xiao, now 51, preferred to operate in the shadows, forge links to certain Chinese princes. He settles into a quiet life at the Four Seasons, where a coterie of female bodyguards tends to his needs.
Why one of his lieutenants paid off the van Gogh is unclear. Mr. Wang, the producer, was among rows of the wealthiest people in China, although nowhere near as wealthy as Mr. Xiao.