THE DIS­AP­PEAR­ING AC­TRESS: po­lit­i­cal in­trigue, in­ter­ro­ga­tion and hu­man rights abuses in China

Australian Women’s Weekly NZ - - CONTENTS -

Fan Bing­bing, China’s high­est­paid ac­tress, had the world at her feet. Newly en­gaged to fel­low ac­tor Li Chen, another house­hold name in China, she was the face of Luis Vuit­ton and De Beers Di­a­monds, a peren­nial front-row guest at Paris Fash­ion Week, with wardrobes full of Valentino cou­ture and a sprawl­ing prop­erty portfolio ru­moured to be worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of US dol­lars.

In June this year, the X-Men ac­tress was fresh back from Cannes pro­mot­ing an ac­tion flick with Pene­lope Cruz, had just wrapped Air Strike, a World War II block­buster with Bruce Wil­lis, and was shoot­ing a se­quel to her 2006 do­mes­tic smash hit Cell Phone. En­joy­ing crit­i­cal ac­claim and enor­mous pop­u­lar­ity in her home coun­try, she sat at the top of the Forbes’ rich list of Chi­nese celebri­ties for years, re­port­edly earn­ing 300 mil­lion yuan (US$43.5 mil­lion) in 2017, sec­ond only to Jackie Chan.

Then, in early July, she sud­denly van­ished. Fan’s busy so­cial me­dia ac­counts (she has 62 mil­lion fol­low­ers on Weibo, China’s Twit­ter) fell silent. Her name was scrubbed from state and so­cial me­dia. No one would con­firm her where­abouts. Her fa­mous fi­ancé went to ground. China’s most cel­e­brated ac­tress had dis­ap­peared off the face of the earth, and no one who knew any­thing about it was talking.

Dark side of the state

China to­day is richer and more de­vel­oped than most of the world could have imag­ined a mere 20 years ago. The rul­ing Com­mu­nist Party’s eco­nomic re­forms have trans­formed the coun­try of al­most 1.4 bil­lion, lift­ing hun­dreds of mil­lions into the mid­dle classes, where real es­tate, overseas travel and lux­ury trap­pings are the norm. But there is a dark side to China’s ex­tra­or­di­nary trans­for­ma­tion. It re­mains an au­thor­i­tar­ian one-party state, and un­der Xi Jin­ping, China’s leader since 2013, move­ments to­wards a freer so­ci­ety have been re­versed. Cit­i­zens must live within the lim­its of the Party’s con­straints, some of which are known, some of which change with­out no­tice. Peo­ple who fall out of favour for po­lit­i­cal reasons can sim­ply van­ish.

The most ex­treme ex­am­ple of this new era in China is the crack­down in

“Loved ones sim­ply dis­ap­peared, there’s not been any in­for­ma­tion.”

the far north-west­ern prov­ince of Xin­jiang, where as many as a mil­lion Mus­lims (Uighur) have dis­ap­peared as part of a mass po­lit­i­cal re-ed­u­ca­tion cam­paign. De­spite out­cry from other coun­tries, China says it’s a nec­es­sary re­sponse to deal with Is­lamist ter­ror­ism. Ex­ter­nal crit­i­cism seems to count for lit­tle in a coun­try where any­one from a Uighur shop­keeper to a world-fa­mous ac­tress can ef­fec­tively be erased.

“It’s a dif­fer­ent case to Fan Bing­bing – she’s ac­cused of crim­i­nal con­duct – but it’s the same idea: that peo­ple can be dis­ap­peared, and there doesn’t seem to be no­ti­fi­ca­tion to fam­ily mem­bers or the le­gal rights or trans­parency you have in West­ern coun­tries. It doesn’t mat­ter if you’re the In­ter­pol chief or

Fan Bing­bing or a Uighur, you’re in the same boat,” says the ABC’s China cor­re­spon­dent Bill Bir­tles.

In­ter­na­tional diplo­mat Meng Hong­wei is another of the re­cently van­ished. Meng was not only a se­nior Com­mu­nist Party of­fi­cial with a long ca­reer in the se­cu­rity forces, he was put for­ward by China in 2016 to be the new global head of In­ter­pol, the in­ter­na­tional agency which co-or­di­nates na­tional po­lice forces. It was a pres­ti­gious post and global recog­ni­tion that China was a val­ued con­trib­u­tor to world or­der.

Then, in late Septem­ber, Meng flew to Beijing from Lyons, in France, where In­ter­pol is head­quar­tered, leav­ing his wife and two young sons be­hind. Af­ter his ar­rival, he sent his wife a chilling text: an emoji pic­ture of a knife. Then he van­ished. He has not been seen or heard from since and his wife has told West­ern me­dia that she fears he is dead.

Lit­tle is known about what hap­pens to peo­ple who dis­ap­pear into China’s opaque le­gal sys­tem, but parts of the pic­ture emerge from ac­counts of the few re­leased, from pris­on­ers’ fam­i­lies and re­search by Chi­nese ac­tivists. Re­ports from hu­man rights NGOs (non­govern­ment or­gan­i­sa­tions) have re­vealed so-called “black jails” – un­of­fi­cial tem­po­rary places of im­pris­on­ment and in­ter­ro­ga­tion some­times set up in state-owned ho­tels or apart­ments where none of the rules or pro­tec­tions af­forded pris­on­ers in Aus­tralia nec­es­sar­ily ap­ply. There are many doc­u­mented cases of harsh treat­ment, vi­o­lence and abuse of fe­male de­tainees at the hands of the plain-clothes guards.

“You are ba­si­cally in a no-man’s land,” says Dr Elisa Ne­sossi, an ex­pert in China’s le­gal sys­tem from the Aus­tralian Na­tional Uni­ver­sity.

“We know that peo­ple are detained in ho­tels or other in­for­mal places of de­ten­tion, where they are in­ter­ro­gated for a long time and of­ten sub­jected to abuses. At that stage you don’t get ac­cess to a lawyer or the out­side world.”

Dur­ing Fan Bing­bing’s dis­ap­pear­ance, Hong Kong me­dia printed ru­mours she was be­ing held in se­cret de­ten­tion in a “re­sort” in Wuxi, a city in the south­ern coastal prov­ince of Jiangsu, where her stu­dio busi­ness is based. Other re­ports put her in Beijing, in a 1000 yuan-anight ho­tel. While in this le­gal limbo, sus­pects (even world-fa­mous ones) are en­tirely cut off from the out­side world.

“The high-level cases in­volv­ing celebri­ties and of­fi­cials are very hard to get to the bot­tom of,” says the ABC’s

Bill Bir­tles. “But for low-level cases in­volv­ing po­lit­i­cal dis­si­dents… their loved ones have sim­ply dis­ap­peared, there’s not been any in­for­ma­tion about what hap­pened to them. Some­times, weeks or months later, they are for­mally no­ti­fied by pub­lic se­cu­rity of­fi­cials that their rel­a­tives are in what’s called ‘res­i­den­tial surveil­lance at a des­ig­nated lo­ca­tion’. Though it’s pos­si­ble high­pro­file peo­ple may get bet­ter treat­ment.” An Aus­tralian dis­ap­pears

It is le­gal in China for sus­pects to be detained, in­com­mu­ni­cado, with­out ar­rest and with­out au­thor­i­ties in­form­ing fam­ily mem­bers of their where­abouts, for up to 37 days. It is very rare that, once detained, a sus­pect is per­mit­ted to walk free. But that is what hap­pened to Sydney aca­demic Feng Chongyi when he was in­ter­ro­gated by se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in China last year.

“You don’t need to be an ex­pert on China to know that pol­i­tics is above the law,” he says. “They can do what­ever they want.”

The pro­fes­sor was in­ter­ro­gated in one of these un­of­fi­cial fa­cil­i­ties, a ho­tel in Kunming, in early 2017 af­ter he was stopped by au­thor­i­ties on a re­search trip.

“It seems like the end of the world,” Pro­fes­sor Feng, a critic of China’s gov­ern­ment, tells The Aus­tralian Women’s Weekly. He was sum­moned

by Min­istry of State Se­cu­rity of­fi­cials – he de­scribes them as China’s se­cret po­lice. In it­self this was not un­usual – he has been fol­lowed by se­cu­rity forces for years on his reg­u­lar re­search trips to China, en­cour­aged to have “con­ver­sa­tions” with agents in tea­rooms or ho­tels.

“The dif­fer­ence last year was that they were no longer friendly,” he says. “It was an in­ter­ro­ga­tion. They took me to another ho­tel on the out­skirts, quite far from the city cen­tre. They were well pre­pared. Maybe it was one of their reg­u­lar bases for op­er­a­tions.”

There were mi­cro­phones, video record­ing equip­ment and a lie de­tec­tor ma­chine set up. The of­fi­cials said he had to answer ques­tions about his work and con­tacts in Aus­tralia. He re­fused the lie de­tec­tor test but to his re­lief and sur­prise he was even­tu­ally per­mit­ted to leave. How­ever, the same in­ter­roga­tors fol­lowed him to Guangzhou.

“I re­alised I was in se­ri­ous dan­ger,” he says. “My wife said, ‘It’s too danger­ous, you have to es­cape.’” He con­tacted lawyer friends in Guang­dong: “In case they dis­ap­peared me – my friends would in­form the en­tire world.”

That night the pro­fes­sor tried to flee the coun­try but was stopped at the air­port and his pass­port was seized.

“They said, ‘We can­not al­low you to leave. You’re en­dan­ger­ing state se­cu­rity,’” he says. “They said, ‘You need to co-op­er­ate with us un­til we are sat­is­fied. We will keep you as long as we want.’”

Pro­fes­sor Feng, who claims he had com­mit­ted no crimes, de­spaired. He knew it meant they were talking about es­pi­onage charges, and he could be jailed for years. [The Chi­nese em­bassy in Can­berra did not re­spond to a re­quest for com­ment on Pro­fes­sor Feng’s story or any el­e­ments of this ar­ti­cle.] His friends, wife and daugh­ter in Sydney went to the me­dia. Amid a blaze of pub­lic­ity and out­rage in Aus­tralia and in­ter­na­tion­ally, Feng, who re­tained good con­nec­tions with past and present Chi­nese of­fi­cials (many of whom were for­mer stu­dents) was even­tu­ally al­lowed to re­turn to Aus­tralia. But most who dis­ap­pear into the sys­tem are not so for­tu­nate.

In Xin­jiang, Uighurs have dis­ap­peared by the tens of thou­sands. Dogged work by rel­a­tives overseas, jour­nal­ists and ac­tivists, has re­vealed they are be­ing held in vast, se­cret “re-ed­u­ca­tion” camps, ringed by high walls and guard tow­ers, banned from con­tact with the out­side world. The camps are so big West­ern re­searchers found them on satel­lite images. They’ve been mul­ti­ply­ing across the desert in re­cent years. Aus­tralian Uighurs tell stories of moth­ers and fa­thers van­ish­ing with­out warn­ing, leav­ing be­hind be­wil­dered and dis­tressed chil­dren who have no way of find­ing them. For many of the dis­ap­peared, their crime was al­legedly to have spo­ken to a loved one overseas, at­tended a mosque, or sim­ply to have been born Mus­lim.

Af­ter years of deny­ing the ex­is­tence of these camps, in Oc­to­ber Chi­nese of­fi­cials switched tack and claimed the camps were vo­ca­tional ed­u­ca­tion cen­tres, nec­es­sary to deal with the threat of Is­lamic ter­ror­ism, which for some years was a prob­lem in the restive prov­ince.

“These peo­ple are not ac­cused of com­mit­ting crimes. They’re sus­pected of be­ing at risk of Is­lamic fun­da­men­tal­ism and ter­ror­ism and ap­pear to be pre­emp­tively detained in de­ten­tion fa­cil­i­ties – pris­ons, ba­si­cally,” says Bill Bir­tles. Their fates were sealed

In ret­ro­spect, China-watch­ers say In­ter­pol chief Meng Hong­wei’s doom was sealed when he was qui­etly re­moved from his own min­istry’s in-house Com­mu­nist Party com­mit­tee in April. In the opaque in­trigues of Chi­nese pol­i­tics, that sub­tle de­mo­tion made him a marked man. It was a sign that some­one in the high­est ech­e­lons of lead­er­ship wanted him gone. Ear­lier in his ca­reer, he had been linked with for­mer Polit­buro se­cu­rity chief Zhou Yongkang, who was con­victed of tak­ing bribes in 2015, be­com­ing the most se­nior politi­cian ever jailed in China.

“[Pres­i­dent] Xi has been try­ing to clear out Zhou’s in­flu­ence from China’s do­mes­tic se­cu­rity ap­pa­ra­tus for the past few years, one by one ar­rest­ing Zhou’s pro­tégés,” says Bir­tles.

“The big ques­tion was why Xi would let Meng Hong­wei rise to the head of

In­ter­pol, when he was likely plot­ting to bring him down for a long time? This re­flects that in the minds of Com­mu­nist party lead­ers, do­mes­tic pol­i­tics is the be-all and end-all. They don’t care what the in­ter­na­tional com­mu­nity thinks.” A man who was likely re­spon­si­ble for many le­gal dis­ap­pear­ances in his own ca­reer, Meng has not been heard of since his wife re­ceived that fright­en­ing emoji. No one out­side the au­thor­i­ties knows if he is alive or dead.

Fan Bing­bing’s is a dif­fer­ent story. Not a po­lit­i­cal op­er­a­tive used to nav­i­gat­ing the murky un­der­cur­rents of Chi­nese pol­i­tics, Fan ap­peared to live in another strato­sphere, although she had con­nec­tions high up in the Party. The 37-year-old ac­tress once said she did not need to marry a rich man be­cause she was her­self so wealthy. She was held up as an ideal of beauty across China, and her large eyes, ivory skin and oval face re­port­edly in­spired count­less plas­tic surgery re­quests. There was even a Bar­bie doll made in her like­ness.

Fol­low­ing Fan’s dis­ap­pear­ance, her where­abouts re­mained a mystery for months. A chill rip­pled across Chi­nese film in­dus­tries, share prices in pro­duc­tion com­pa­nies tanked, pro­duc­tions were put on hold. There were even re­ports she’d ap­plied for asy­lum in Los An­ge­les on ad­vice from Jackie Chan.

The lux­ury brands she rep­re­sented – De Beers, Mont­blanc, Guer­lain, Louis Vuit­ton and Aus­tralia’s Swisse Vitamins – qui­etly dis­tanced them­selves from the ac­tress, re­mov­ing her im­age from their web­sites and ad­ver­tise­ments in China. Then, abruptly, on Oc­to­ber 3, three months af­ter her dis­ap­pear­ance, a terse one-sen­tence news item ap­peared in China’s state me­dia: “Chi­nese ac­tress

Fan Bing­bing has been or­dered to pay taxes and fines worth hun­dreds of mil­lions of yuan over tax eva­sion, the coun­try’s tax­a­tion au­thor­i­ties said Wed­nes­day af­ter an in­ves­ti­ga­tion.” There’s a joke among China-watch­ers that the shorter the ar­ti­cle in state me­dia, the big­ger the story. This was the first con­fir­ma­tion that her dis­ap­pear­ance was at the hands of the au­thor­i­ties.

Then, hours later, a con­fes­sion and ab­ject apol­ogy ap­peared on so­cial me­dia: “Re­cently, I have ex­pe­ri­enced un­prece­dented pain and agony, and I have un­der­gone pro­found thought and re­flec­tion. I feel ashamed and guilty about what I have done, and I sin­cerely apol­o­gise to you all!” Fan wrote.

She con­fessed to us­ing “split con­tracts” – known col­lo­qui­ally as yin-yang con­tracts – to evade tax, and ac­cepted heavy penal­ties. “With­out the good poli­cies of the Com­mu­nist Party and the state, with­out the peo­ple’s love and care, there would be no Fan Bing­bing...

Please for­give me!” she begged.

Fan was a tax cheat, but was it re­ally that simple? Tax eva­sion is an al­most uni­ver­sal prac­tice in the Chi­nese en­ter­tain­ment in­dus­try, says Pro­fes­sor Stan Rosen, a Chi­nese film in­dus­try ex­pert from the US-China In­sti­tute in Cal­i­for­nia. So why did Fan go down?

One ru­mour was that the Chi­nese lead­er­ship was so con­cerned about gov­ern­ment cash flow in the trade war with the US they were look­ing to claw back rev­enue wher­ever they could. Fan, the coun­try’s big­gest star, was sac­ri­ficed to scare thou­sands of oth­ers into pay­ing back taxes – like the fa­mous Chi­nese para­ble about killing the chicken to scare the monkeys. Another the­ory is she was a flight risk – she had the means and con­nec­tions to leave the coun­try.

Af­ter Fan’s apol­ogy, re­ports emerged she had put 41 of her lux­ury apart­ments on the mar­ket to quickly raise the US$129 mil­lion in back taxes and fines. She had still not been seen in pub­lic.

The planned Oc­to­ber re­lease date of

Air Strike in China was scrapped.

How­ever, Pro­fes­sor Rosen be­lieves Fan will work again. “Her fans will still be sup­port­ive,” he says, firstly be­cause they be­lieve she was un­fairly sin­gled out and se­condly be­cause “she’s a glam­our icon and one of China’s fore­most rep­re­sen­ta­tives in the world. A lot of women will be­lieve that the au­thor­i­ties went af­ter her be­cause she’s a woman.”

The Chi­nese gov­ern­ment – over­whelm­ingly male dom­i­nated at the up­per lev­els – has form when it comes to pick­ing on fe­male stars. Pro­fes­sor Rosen points to the case of Tang Wei, who was black­listed from the film in­dus­try for years af­ter the gov­ern­ment’s moral out­rage over racy sex scenes in her first film, while her fa­mous male co-star and di­rec­tor, Ang Lee, re­ceived no cen­sure at all. There was also a fa­mous ac­tress called Liu Xiao­qing, jailed in 2002 for three years for dodg­ing far less tax than Fan did, while ex­am­ples of male ac­tors treated sim­i­larly are much harder to find.

But in a coun­try where at least 30 mil­lion peo­ple – on the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment’s own fig­ures – still live be­low the poverty line, oth­ers think Fan has been let off lightly.

“This whole thing will re­main very murky and strange,” Bill Bir­tles says.

One thing is cer­tain: if you dis­ap­pear in China it’s be­cause some­one pow­er­ful has de­cided you’re a po­lit­i­cal prob­lem. “This is how China op­er­ates,” says Pro­fes­sor Rosen. “They won’t give you in­for­ma­tion. What it does is send a sig­nal … that no one in China is safe.”


LEFT: Uighur women grieve as men are taken away by Chi­nese au­thor­i­ties. They are held in vast, se­cret “re-ed­u­ca­tion camps” and banned con­tact with the out­side.

ABOVE: Fan Bing­bing (far right) at Cannes with her spy movie 355 co-stars (from left) Mar­ion Cotil­lard, Lupita Ny­ong'o, Pene­lope Cruz and Jes­sica Chas­tain. RIGHT: With Jackie Chan. BE­LOW: In X-Men.

ABOVE: In­ter­pol chief Meng Hong­wei van­ished in Septem­ber. LEFT: The sin­is­ter text. RIGHT: Fan is China’s most in­flu­en­tial star.

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