A Chinese billionaire with a Maltese passport has been indicted in the US amid allegations that he avoided paying $1.8 billion in aluminum tariffs.

Liu Zhongtian, a 55-year-old ex-member of the National People’s Congress, is accused of exporting large amounts of aluminium disguised as pallets to avoid paying customs duties of to 400 per cent. 

He is one of the ultra wealthy people granted Maltese citizenship under the cash-for-passports scheme but appear to be living in modest flats in areas like Birżebbuġa, Mellieħa, St Paul’s Bay and Mġarr.

Mr Liu made his fortune in the aluminium trade and was described as the eighth richest person by Mossack Fonseca for a company set up in the British Virgin Islands.

However since 2016, his registered address is a small, first floor flat in Naxxar.

Also named in the indictment, filed in Los Angeles federal court, is the company which Mr Liu is former chairman of, as well as several individuals and shell companies.

"This indictment outlines the unscrupulous and anti-competitive practices of a corrupt businessman who defrauded the United States out of $1.8 billion in tariffs due on Chinese imports.

"Moreover, the bogus sales of hundreds of millions of dollars of aluminum artificially inflated the value of a publicly traded company, putting at risk investors around the world," prosecutor Nick Hanna said.

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Authorities say the scheme, which started in 2008 and is still operating, consisted of the company - China Zhongwang Holdings - selling the alleged aluminum pallets to US-based companies controlled by Mr Liu.

In 2016,  murdered journalist Daphne Caruana Galizia reported that after he had obtained Maltese citizenship, Mr Liu had been listed on the electoral register.  

US media reports claim Mr Liu, who goes by the nickname 'Big Boss' and 'Uncle Liu', is believed to be in China. 

How does Malta's cash-for-passports scheme work?

Since 2014, Malta has been offering the super wealthy - and their families - citizenship in the EU through the 'Individual Investor Programme'.

It costs at least €650,000 with additional payments for other family members. That money goes into the country's National Development and Social Fund, which finances education, health and job creation projects.

Applicants also have to commit to 'retaining an immovable residence in Malta' for at least five years either by buying property worth a minimum of €350,000 or by leasing a property with an annual rent of €16,000.

Additionally they have to invest at least €150,000 in government bonds.

Additional reporting by AFP.