She was China’s brightest star.
Then Fan Bingbing simply … vanished.
Now the glamorous actress is back — thanking the Communist Party for forcing her to “calm down and think seriously”.
For four months last year, the highlight of Beijing’s A-list and the beating heart of China’s social scene was uncontactable.
The international superstar — whose face had continuously glowed on the nation’s airwaves — was suddenly nowhere to be seen.
Her social media accounts had fallen silent. Her face was no longer promoting a multitude of products. Her presence was no longer gracing Chinese high society.
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Rumours exploded across the world: Jealous Community Party leaders had abducted her or she had sought exile in the US. But it was soon apparent she had fallen from grace. China’s authoritarian Communist leadership had become displeased with the country’s most celebrated celebrity.
Her star had shone brightly. Too bright, perhaps.
AFFAIRS OF STATE
Almost a year after the scandal, Fan has tentatively stepped back into the public eye.
She’s returning to the silver screen in a new international action movie, 355.
But she made sure to thank the regime for “disappearing” her for four months.
The 37-year-old actress, who appeared in dozens of movies and TV series, has reappeared in an unusually rare interview with Western media.
She addressed her mysterious detention obliquely.
“It may be a trough I encountered in my life or in my work, but this trough is actually a good thing,” she told the New York Times.
“It has made me calm down and think seriously about what I want to do in my future life.”
When it came to Chinese screen time, Fan Bingbing’ was second only to President-for-life Xi Jinping.
Social media-savvy Fan once shared every detail of her high-profile life, from what she ate to what flowers her fiancee had given her.
But, since being “disappeared” last year, she’s only made occasional public forays to espouse the glory of the Communist state.
Fan was never formally charged, nor has any explanation been offered for her house arrest.
“No one can have smooth sailing throughout the journey,” Fan told the New York Times.
For her, that means paying the Chinese taxman some $US70 million and giving up her high-flying, celebrity lifestyle.
It didn’t take long for adoring fans to notice something was wrong.
Fan’s all-pervasive presence ended in July last year. Then, State-approved social media accounts began calling her a fraud. She was accused of dodging tax.
It all blew up when Chinese TV news presenter Cui Yongyuan — who had a grudge against Fan — published one of her formal contracts.
Fan was to have been paid $US1.5 million for four days work. But a second document appeared to reveal she had received five times that amount.
It became known as the “yin-yang” tax scandal.
Four months after being “vanished”, the Communist Party issued a formal statement: Fan had been heavily fined. She would pay the avoided taxes — and much more.
Fan confirmed her release in October with a formal apology: “For a while, due to my not understanding the relationship between benefits of the country, society, and individual, I and others took advantage of a ‘split contract’ to avoid tax problems, and I am deeply ashamed.”
She said she “accepts the judgement completely”.
She said the experience had caused her “immense pain”.
But Fan reaffirmed her passion for acting, asserting that her success was “down to the support of my country and the people”.
“Without the policies of the Party and the country, without the love of the people, there is no Fan Bingbing,” her Sina Weibo post reads.
Police bursting through doors. Threats of imprisonment or disgrace. Disappearance.
All have become a common tactic as the Chinese Communist Party seeks to establish dominance over every element of Chinese society.
Religion. Academia. Artists. Unions. Corporations. All must conform or face the consequences.
Human rights lawyer Wang Quanzhang vanished almost four years ago. He’s not been seen nor heard from since. It’s a similar story for 200 other lawyers and legal assistants.
The wife of human rights activist Liu Xiaobo, who was in jail at the time, was put under house arrest — without charge. This was to prevent her from receiving a Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of her husband.
Then, last year, the wife of Interpol President Meng Hongwei reported her husband had “vanished’ during a trip home to China. Months later, Beijing stated he had been convicted on corruption charges.
It’s just the tip of Chinese Communism’s censorship spear.
Any inconvenient social media posts — be they political dissent or natural disasters — are simply deleted or blocked. A massive list of keywords has been black-listed by authorities, ranging from “emperor” through to “Winnie the Pooh”.
And every “offence” comes with a cost: a fall in an individual’s “social responsibility” score.
This score is secret. But it is affected every time you post to social media, buy alcohol — or have a baby. It can give you — or deny you — access to international travel. Or even internal rail networks. The exact list of rewards and punishments is uncertain.
In September last year, the Beijing Normal University published a list of 100 Chinese stars and their social score.
Fan Bingbing had a score of zero.
Fan Bingbing appears to have a new role to play: That of Xi Jinping’s advocate.
Uncharacteristically, her once vapid social media accounts are rebroadcasting key political messages.
But Fan’s fall from grace served another purpose: That of example.
Chinese State media reports her case has prompted many other high-flyers to pay their outstanding taxes. Her fate also serves as a reminder not to defy Beijing’s authority.
Fan’s unexplained disappearance distressed of her Chinese fans. She has 62 million Weibo followers alone.
Some of her fresh posts are back in the celebrity vein: she’s breaking up with her fiance — actor and director Li Chen. It’s a role she’s been playing since appearing in her first television drama at age 16.
But she’s now embracing the role of social paragon.
“I believe that, after this incident, I will uphold the law and respect orders, as well as taking my responsibilities,” she said after her release.
“While I will continue to produce great work for everyone, I will keep a close eye on my company’s management to ensure that my company abides by the law, building it into a great company that is cultured and has high integrity, in order to spread positive energy to society.”
A NEW ROLE
Fan Bingbing is about to return to the silver screen.It’s her natural habitat.
Fan has starred in over 50 films — both Chinese and Western — including Iron Man 3 and X-Men: Days Of Future Past.
Now, she has appeared in teaser and promotional material for the upcoming action movie, 355. Produced by Jessica Chastain, it’s about a multinational group of spies played by the likes of Penelope Cruz, Jessica Chastain and Lupita Nyong’o.
It could be part of an effort to revive China’s own movie industry, which has been languishing in recent years under tight censorship oversight and repeated scandals.
Several high-budget, state-approved movies have been pulled just days from their official release. Hardest hit have been private Chinese film studies. And international investors have become gun-shy.
As with China’s film industry, Fan describes her current situation as a “crossroads”.
Can she — and the nation’s film industry — appease the authoritarian regime’s demands?
“There are regrets, pain and fragility,” Fan told The New York Times.
“But I still feel that I need to keep on living.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer. Continue the conversation @JamieSeidel