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