Though she is not an A-lister in Hollywood, Chinese actress Fan Bingbing is a certified superstar in her home country, a status aided by her appearance in 2014’s ‘X-Men: Days of Future Past’. But now 37-year-old Fan Bingbing is gone, having seemingly vanished out of thin air.
Fan is likely best-known to American audiences as the character ‘Blink’ in the X-Men film. But, despite being a relatively unknown in Hollywood, she placed fourth in a 2015 ranking of the highest-paid actresses on the planet, behind the likes of Jennifer Lawrence, Scarlett Johannsson, and Melissa McCarthy. Beside being an actress, Fan is known in China as a pop singer, producer, and model, a confluence of talents that netted her $21 million in 2015.
So, when Fan seemingly ceased existing as a social personality and dropped from the public view in July, her fans domestic and abroad took notice. While her case is mysterious, there’s reason to believe that the reason behind her disappearance is not. It appears that accusations of Bingbing’s involvement in alleged tax evasion behaviors – and perhaps even more scandalous affairs – may be at the root of her disappearance.
On September 6th, Chinese website Securities Daily, which has connections with the government, posted a notice stating that Fan had been “placed under control”, an Orwellian-sounding phrase which, in this context, means that Fan was under investigation and almost certainly in custody. It’s since emerged that Fan may have engaged in a practice known as a yin-yang contract, by which tax-wary entertainers publicly sign one contract for tax documentation, but also agree to a larger figure under the table in order to avoid China’s 45% tax rate for the highest-earning bracket.
In the United States, tax evasion – especially by celebrities – can be seriously detrimental to a career. Actor Wesley Snipes was sentenced to three years in prison for allegedly defrauding the U.S. government out of $7 million. Sure, prison time for not paying your taxes may seem steep to some, but a) it was a lot of money, b) Snipes was granted a free and fair trial, and c) upon emerging from prison, he was free to once again pursue a career in acting, from which he could make a nice living.
China, notoriously harsh on tax evaders, apparently does not offer even its rich and famous the same measure of redemption. Fan, who would likely be able to pay back most if not all of the money she allegedly hid from the Chinese tax authorities, has seemingly had her career completely quashed by a government that has taken steps to crack down on Chinese entertainers’ earnings in recent months. Speculation is that Fan, already the highest-paid actress in China, would serve as a prime example that no figure is above the Chinese government, and there is no stronger way to send that message than to seemingly neuter the career of the brightest star in Chinese popular culture.
Rarely, if ever, do celebrities with 63 million followers simply go radio silent without explanation. But that’s precisely what has happened, as her account on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo has been without post since July 23rd. Neither does a public figure of Fan’s stature remain out of the public eye for very long. Yet, Fan has reportedly not been seen in public since visiting a children’s hospital in Shanghai on July 1st.
China’s authorities do not have an obligation to disclose when somebody is being held as part of an investigation. Official confirmation in September that Fan is in fact the subject of a probe into her alleged tax evasion, along with the efforts of the Chinese government to cap payments to stars within the nation’s state-controlled film industry, make the suggestion that Fan is being held by the government somewhere out of the public’s view the most credible explanation for her seeming disappearance.
But, in what is perhaps the most striking aspect of this story, the government has yet to confirm or deny that Fan is in their custody.
‘The lack of an official statement on her whereabouts has spurred tabloid speculation that Fan was banned from acting or placed under house arrest. Last week, according to the Guardian, a report in China’s state-run Securities Journal claimed that Fan would “accept legal judgement,” though the article did not specify her offense, and was removed shortly after publication.’ (TIME)
The move is also noteworthy considering that it apparently comes with complete disregard for Fan’s emergence as a Western figure. She signed in May to join a star-studded female cast of ‘355’, a spy-thriller whose roster includes Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz, and Lupita Nyong’o. In a telling sign of Fan’s increasing recognition in the West, she is listed before Penelope Cruz, a Hollywood veteran, in the film’s announcement. Her involvement in the film is now very much up in the air, and the suggestion that she was become too big a star for her own good also plays a role in speculation about why she is being treated the way that she is. Fan let out this telling soundbite last February: “In 10 years’ time…I’m sure I will be the heroine of X-Men.”
Instead, her career path took an abrupt halt when, in May, a CCTV presenter shared on Weibo a pair of contracts, seemingly issued on behalf of Fan, which showed her billing separate amounts ($1.6 million and $7.8 million, respectively) for the same work. This, it now appears, may have been the professionally fatal – or perhaps only crippling – mistake at the heart of her prolonged absence from the public eye.
Other theories have hinted at personal vendettas, party scandal, and other salacious storylines that may be the impetus behind the allegations levied against fan.
‘Last year, she filed a defamation lawsuit against exiled Chinese billionaire Guo Wengui, who alleged sexual affairs between celebrities, including Fan, and top Chinese Communist Party officials. And when the yin-yang contracts came to light, Fan was shooting a sequel to Cell Phone that Cui, her CCTV accuser, complained bore an uncomfortable resemblance to his own life, the Post reports.’ (TIME)
The fact that we don’t know the true reasons behind her apparent detainment speaks to the outright authority that the Chinese Communist party holds. They owe no explanations to anybody, and they don’t even try to pretend otherwise. Regardless of the true motive behind Fan’s apparent detainment, it’s undoubtedly having an impact on her ability to make the same sort of living she has in the past, both domestically and abroad.
‘The whiff of impropriety has already impacted her cachet: Australian vitamin brand Swisse suspended use of Fan’s image in advertisements, while her name was removed from promotional materials for the upcoming Unbreakable Spirit, starring Bruce Willis.’ (TIME)
Some have taken this distancing from Fan as a sign that Fan, who has seemingly done something to piss of Chinese higher-ups, has become toxic, which would be a shocking crash from her status as an ascending starlet. Business and politics are intertwined closely in China, and foreign businesses, movie studios, and other bottom-line entities are clearly not willing to risk a rift with the Chinese authorities over one actress, however popular she may be.
Celebrities have always been synonymous with the phrase “above the law”. In China, there has been no better way to dispel notions that anybody is above the reach of the government than to punish the nation’s most popular stars. Whether it is the imprisonment of world-renowned artist and activist Ai Weiwei or the apparent stunting – for how long, who knows? – of up-and-coming starlet Fan Bingbing’s career over tax evasion practices that may not even be completely uncommon in China, it’s clear that nobody is above being made an example of in today’s China.
What’s most eyebrow-raising, however, is that we continue not to know for certain that Fan is even in authorities’ custody, what exactly the charges against her may be, and what fate lies ahead for her. It’s this ‘everybody knows, but nobody knows’ element of Fan’s story which gives it a dystopian bent, and the element that helps remind us of the freedoms that many Westerners must not take for granted.