The miss­ing film star (and a $127m tax bill)

The Guardian Weekly - - Spotlight - By Steve Rose

‘I should abide by the law and play a lead­ing role in so­ci­ety’

Imag­ine if Jen­nifer Lawrence or Scar­lett Jo­hans­son went miss­ing and no­body knew where they had gone – even three months later. That is what hap­pened to Fan Bing­bing. She is one of China’s best known and high­est-paid ac­tors, thanks to a string of do­mes­tic hits such as Cell Phone and Dou­ble Xpo­sure.

On 2 July this year she posted de­tails of a visit to a chil­dren’s hos­pi­tal in Tibet on Weibo. Then her ac­count went dead, leav­ing her 63 mil­lion fol­low­ers won­der­ing what had hap­pened. Had Fan been ab­ducted? Ar­rested? The ques­tions piled up, then tipped over into con­spir­acy the­ory. There were base­less ru­mours she and hus­band Li Chen gam­bled away $12m in three days in Las Ve­gas. That she was be­ing held in a mil­i­tary prison in Bei­jing af­ter hav­ing an af­fair with Chi­nese vice-pres­i­dent Wang Qis­han.

The most cred­i­ble ru­mour may have been that Fan was in trou­ble with the tax of­fice, which is not quite as pro­saic as it sounds. Shortly be­fore her dis­ap­pear­ance, the pop­u­lar TV pre­sen­ter Cui Yongyuan posted on so­cial me­dia what ap­peared to be two sep­a­rate con­tracts for Fan’s work on her forth­com­ing movie Air Strike, star­ring Bruce Willis. One con­tract was ap­par­ently for 10m yuan ($1.5m); the other for 60m yuan. The im­pli­ca­tion pre­sum­ably was that this was a “yinyang con­tract” – two for the same job. The smaller fig­ure, it was im­plied, was de­clared to the tax of­fice; the larger one pur­ported to in­di­cate what the star was ac­tu­ally paid. Fan de­nied the al­le­ga­tion, and Cui promptly re­tracted it, but the au­thor­i­ties re­port­edly be­gan to in­ves­ti­gate shortly be­fore Fan went off the radar.

Last month, the mys­tery was ap­par­ently partly ex­plained with the news that Fan and her com­pa­nies had been or­dered to pay 883m ($127m) yuan in un­paid taxes and fines. She has not been charged with any crime.

Fan’s first pub­lic com­mu­ni­ca­tion since July was a grov­el­ling con­fes­sion on Weibo: “For a long time, I did not dis­tin­guish be­tween na­tional, so­cial and per­sonal in­ter­ests,” she wrote. “As a pub­lic fig­ure, I should abide by the law, and play a lead­ing role in so­ci­ety and in­dus­try … With­out the good poli­cies of the party and the state, and with­out the love of the peo­ple, there would be no Fan Bing­bing.” In short, Fan seems to have been made an ex­am­ple of.

China’s movie in­dus­try has mush­roomed over the past decade. This ex­plo­sion has brought in a new breed of mon­eyed celebrity, some of whom have no in­hi­bi­tions about its wealth.

But this year the au­thor­i­ties ap­par­ently de­cided to take ac­tion. Al­ready the con­tent of Chi­nese films is care­fully vet­ted and must pro­mote “core so­cial­ist val­ues”. Then, in June, of­fi­cial agen­cies an­nounced a joint clampdown on ac­tors’ pay, cit­ing not only tax eva­sion but “money wor­ship”, “the youth blindly chas­ing celebri­ties” and “dis­torted so­cial val­ues”.

The na­ture of Fan’s dis­ap­pear­ance has sent a jolt through Chi­nese so­ci­ety. Ac­cord­ing to re­ports, Fan was de­tained at a “hol­i­day re­sort” in Wuxi, un­der a 2013 le­gal frame­work known as “res­i­den­tial sur­veil­lance at a des­ig­nated lo­ca­tion”. It is es­sen­tially a le­gal­is­tic eu­phemism for dis­ap­pear­ance and forced de­ten­tion.

We are un­likely to ever know what ex­actly Fan Bing­bing un­der­went, but the im­pli­ca­tion is clear: if the au­thor­i­ties can get to the big­gest celebrity in the land, they can get to any­one.

GISELA SCHOBER/GETTY

Off the radar Fan Bing­bing has had tax trou­bles

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