She was arguably China’s biggest star, with her recognition level among the general populace and over-exposure throughout the country perhaps only rivalled by Xi Jinping. But now, actor Fan Bingbing’s social media accounts have fallen silent, her production company’s offices have reportedly been emptied, and Fan herself hasn’t been seen in public in over two months.
The star, previously best known to audiences outside of China for playing Blink in X-Men: Days of Future Past, has apparently been the subject of an ongoing investigation into tax avoidance, which was sparked back at the end of May by presenter Cui Yongyuan publishing so-called “yin-yang contracts”. The documents purportedly showed that Fan had been paid tens of millions of Renminbi for the same work via two separate contracts, with only one reported to the authorities thus — it was alleged — sidestepping a significant amount of tax.
Cui’s post on microblogging site Weibo created a huge storm that still has social media commenters’ heads in a spin and high-paid Chinese actors’ agents in a panic. There’s been a bitter war of words between Cui and film director Feng Xiaogang and a string of government pronouncements about “money worship” and “unhealthy trends” in the wake of the scandal.
But a question that’s proven especially vexing on Weibo and various chat forums lately is what exactly has happened to Fan Bingbing?
In early August, over a month after Fan’s last public appearance, the word was she had been banned from acting for three years. It’d be easy to make a joke at this point about her not really being able to act in the first place. So, so easy given some of the commercial crap she’s put in front of audiences over the years. But to be fair, a number of her performances, such as in Li Yu’s Lost in Beijing, suggest otherwise.
Anyway, in the last few days, the subject of her whereabouts has once again been a major talking point in some corners of the internet. Firstly, she was given a rating of 0% by the 2017-2018 China Film and Television Star Social Responsibility Report, a “study” by Beijing Normal University that ranks Chinese celebrities according to their careers, charity work and “personal integrity”.
Then photos started circulating online of an abandoned office space, which had supposedly been vacated by Fan’s production company, as well as a shot of her in handcuffs (which has been widely debunked as an old rehearsal photo from a previous movie):
There had also been reports that Fan has fled to the US with partner Li Chen, but speculation is now rife that she’s been arrested:
These reports are largely based on a news item that briefly appeared on the Securities Daily website stating that Fan had been “placed under control, and will accept the legal decision.” The report in question was removed after only a few hours.
In the last couple of days, video of Fan’s brother Fan Chengcheng crying on stage during a fan meeting in Nanjing has gone viral, with many linking his seemingly fragile emotional state to his sister’s predicament.
Regarding the question posed in the headline at the top of this article, the answer appears to be “no-one really knows”. It may seem extraordinary that someone as famous and instantly recognizable in China as Fan Bingbing could “vanish” with no official confirmation of her whereabouts, but that is the situation we currently find ourselves in. If she really is under arrest, it would be a spectacular fall from grace, but her case may also highlight how seriously the authorities are now taking such issues, how opaque the system is in the country, and how tightly the media narrative is often controlled around sensitive cases.