What a relief. Chinese film star Fan Bingbing has appeared in public for the first time since she vanished without a trace three months ago, sparking rumours that she had been disappeared by the Chinese Communist Party.
In a video posted by Baidu News and shared on Chinese social media site Weibo, Fan was shown leaving Beijing Capital International Airport on Monday night, wearing a baseball cap and dark glasses to hide her face.
Despite her attempts to slip in under the radar, the 37-year-old actress was caught on camera by paparazzi photographers. Despite this, the veracity of the photos has not been independently verified.
After allegations of tax avoidance by Fan were aired on Chinese social media in June, the high-profile actress disappeared from public life without a statement or explanation, causing alarm and concern for her whereabouts. Experts speculated she had been put into detention by the Chinese government while the tax allegations against her were investigated, a worrying development given her huge public profile and international standing.
“That China feels so emboldened to disappear even one of its most famous actresses…should be a real wake up call that anyone within China could be next,” human rights advocate Michael Caster wrote for CNN in September. Hers is certainly not the last high-profile case – Chinese Interpol chief Meng Hongwei disappeared on 20 September and hasn’t been seen since. There are concerns about his safety and wellbeing, with his wife, Grace Meng, desperately waiting to hear of any news relating to him.
On 2 October, the Chinese government announced Fan had been fined for tax evasion, using multiple ‘yin yang’ contracts to hide large secret additional salaries for her performances. As a result, Fan had to pay US$130 million, according to the government, which included US$42 million in late taxes and fees. Because she was a first-time offender, the government said there would be no criminal charges filed.
The actress posted an apology to her official social media accounts, saying she “completely accepts” the decision of the tax authorities. “Without the favourable polices of the Communist Party and state, without the love of the people, there would have been no Fan Bingbing,” she added.
Despite her apology and fine, the controversy appears to still be affecting movie projects involving Fan. There was speculation her latest film, Air Strike, could be pulled in China after its director appeared to make a resigned statement on Weibo. The World War II film, produced by Mel Gibson, also stars Bruce Willis and Adrien Brody.
“It is time to put (it) down … I have apologised to my main partner who has kept on supporting me, my distribution team who has been working hard, and viewers who have been anticipating the film,” he said on his verified account. There’s been no official confirmation yet as to whether the film will be released in China.
Source: Ben Westcott/CNN-International
Fan Bing Bing’s birthday was on 16 September but hasn’t been seen since 2 June, according to CNN.
So it came as a surprise when, as reported by The Star and Sin Chew Daily, her eagle-eyed fans spotted a birthday message (which has since been deleted) from her Weibo site on her birthday. Their excitement is understandable given the big question mark around the Chinese superstar’s whereabouts.
So, was it Fan Bing Bing herself or someone posting to her Weibo?
It’s probably premature to say at this stage.
There’s a pretty good chance you know who Fan Bing Bing is.
Not only is she a household name in China, she’s one of the few to make a name for herself internationally, playing roles in the X Men film franchise as well as in French film Stretch and Korean film My Way. She’s also been cast in the upcoming spy thriller 355 alongside Jessica Chastain and Penelope Cruz.
So bright is her star wattage that she’s been ranked top 10 in the Forbes China Celebrity 100 list since 2006 and has been the highest paid Chinese celebrity since 2014.
Her face has been on a multitude of high-end ad campaigns for brands such as Cartier, De Beers and Guerlain, and she’s a regular jury member at the Cannes Film Festival.
So when someone like her hasn’t been seen since June this year, the world notices.
The big question is, what has happened to her? It’s a question no one seems to know the answer to.
But as with anything, where there is smoke, there is fire, and a trail of breadcrumbs has fuelled speculation.
According to CNN, an article dated September 6 by Chinese newspaper Securities Daily wrote that “Fan had been brought under control and was about to receive legal judgment.” For those of us who are more accustomed to seeing celebrities out of control and able to get away with it, that seems ominously portentous.
Fergus Ryan, a cyber analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute said to CNN that “If you are a billionaire, then that is something that obviously you can enjoy to a certain extent, but you’ve got to be very, very wary that you don’t at any stage cross a red line of some sort and fall afoul of the Chinese Communist Party.”
Even if you are Fan Bing Bing, it turns out that money can’t buy everything, especially when you still have the Chinese Communist Party to answer to.
The source of the leak: television host Cui Yong Yuan. Photo: Fred Dufour/AFP
So where did it all start to go wrong for her?
Well, we can imagine the name Cui Yong Yuan would do no less than make her blood boil. The Chinese television host is responsible for leaking her contracts to the public and starting this tax evasion circus that has resulted in her disappearance from the public eye.
Vindictive, given this is a person who has described the Chinese national parliament as full of “Empty talk, self-censorship and brain-dead conformity.”
But what was the furore around these contracts? Termed ‘yin yang contracts’, they are primarily used for the purpose of tax evasion. Speaking to CNN on the condition of anonymity, one Chinese film producer with a major film studio said that “The practice of having two contracts, one of them smaller to avoid paying too much tax, was “universal” in the film industry.” According to him, every contract has its ‘irregularities’ and would not stand up to a serious audit.
So why was an example made of Fan Bing Bing?
Well, it seems the Chinese government is keen to clean up the act of the nation’s entertainment industry, capping payoffs for leading actors at no more than 40 percent of the total production costs, according to Vogue.
Reuters reports that the sweep is widespread, also affecting the video game industry, online bloggers and rappers. In an open letter from members of the Beijing Trade Association for Performances, it committed to “purify[ing] the city’s entertainment and performance sector and guide artists towards “core socialist values”.”
Former Asia editor for The Hollywood Reporter, Jonathan Landreth told CNN that the Chinese Communist Party is “Treading a tricky line, keen to use high-profile celebrities to sell the “Chinese Dream,” but not wanting to promote the stark income divide.”
Fan’s star power is undeniable, and she is one of the few Chinese artists to have been able to break into the international market, which afforded her bargaining power. Until now.
“Celebrities are seen as a weapon in the Party’s ideological battle, which is fought across all sectors all the time,” said Jonathan Sullivan, Director of China Programmes at the University of Nottingham.
Landreth adds that “The controls, though, can only go so far. The Chinese government needs the high-profile celebrities to help drive commerce, both domestically and internationally, to promote China.”
And if people are looking at the celebrities and their sins, they won’t be thinking about rumoured corruption amongst Chinese officials and their families. It doesn’t solve the issue of corruption, but maybe a distraction is sufficient for their intents for now.
Adding to her woes, a recent report released by Peking University ranking stars by their ‘social responsibility’ ranked Fan last with a score of zero. The report is allegedly based on their “Professional work, charity work and personal integrity”.
Exactly how the authors arrived at their results is murky, though AFP reports that the authors “Studied the celebrities’ behaviour to assess the extent of their social responsibility but did not elaborate how they arrived at the results, saying that the findings were based on “research and web-scraping”.” We’d love to get our hands on that peer-reviewed hard data.
It also doesn’t help that expectations for this behaviour are now also enshrined in law – the Film Promotion Law, to be exact, which holds performers to high standards of professional and moral excellence. “In the unbridled growth of the industry in the past few years, we might have overlooked the need for positive energy, so the government’s intervention is reasonable,” says Si Ruo, a researcher at the School of Journalism and Communication at China’s Tsinghua University.
All of this doesn’t answer the question of where she is now, though the possibilities read like a plot from a thriller she no doubt would have been the star in. The Mirror posits that she’s been imprisoned by the Chinese authorities and Vogue reports that a Hong Kong tabloid floated the theory that Jackie Chan advised her to flee to Los Angeles to seek asylum, a claim which his camp denied.
Either way, we hope China’s brightest star turns up soon.
Source: CNN International, Reuters, AFP, Vogue, The Mirror