The missing film star (and a $127m tax bill)
‘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.
Off the radar Fan Bingbing has had tax troubles