A woman living with him, Zhao Tingting, has her own connection to the jailed billionaire, Mr. Xiao. She was once a top official at a company he co-founded, which had business dealings with relatives of China’s top leader, Xi Jinping.
Ms. Zhao, 43, who no longer holds that position, now teaches piano. Asked about Mr. Liu’s purchase of the van Gogh, she responded, “Do you think our house comes close to the price of that painting?”
She and Mr. Liu were “just ordinary little employees,” she said, with no connection to the Tomorrow Group, the collection of companies controlled by the billionaire. “We have no right to make any decisions and no right to know anything.”
The couple appear to have been “white gloves,” a term used in China to describe proxy shareholders meant to hide companies’ true owners. Among the thousands of pages of records 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.
Those companies were part of Mr. Xiao’s vast enterprise. He had showed early promise, gaining admission to China’s prestigious Peking University at age 14 and serving as a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen protests. He sided with the government, an allegiance that would help him become one of the country’s richest men, acquiring control of banks, insurers and brokerages, as well as stakes in coal, cement and real estate.