No one knows where China’s most famous actress has gone

Not a recent photograph.
Not a recent photograph.
Image: REUTERS/Stephane Mahe
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Fan Bingbing hasn’t just conquered China, but the whole world.

The actress, model, television presenter, and pop singer has Korean, Chinese, French, and Hollywood titles under her belt, including roles in the “Iron Man” and “X-Men” franchises; an estimated net worth of over $40 million; and more than 62 million followers on Weibo, China’s equivalent of Twitter. (For comparison, US president Donald Trump has around 54 million Twitter followers.)

But this international superstar hasn’t been seen publicly since early July, and there are concerns she may have been detained by Chinese authorities over allegations of tax evasion. As speculation mounts, here’s what we know.

A series of disappearances

On July 1, Fan made an appearance at a children’s hospital in Shanghai. In the months since, both the actress and, bafflingly, her name and image have vanished seemingly without trace in China.

Unbreakable Spirit, a forthcoming Chinese production, stars the actress alongside Bruce Willis—but an August release has been pushed to October, while Fan’s name was expunged from posters for the movie last month. She has reportedly been “edited out” of another forthcoming film (paywall).

She’s AWOL online, too: Fan hasn’t posted anything on her multiple verified social media accounts since May, nor visibly used Weibo since late July.

Rumors abound

In late May, a former CCTV host, Cui Yongyuan, posted pictures on Weibo of two contracts, quickly linked to Fan’s 2003 blockbuster hit Cell Phone. While one showed a salary of $1.6 million for four days’ work, the other indicated that her real fee had been $7.8 million. Such “yin-yang” contracts are common but illegal—production companies give actors two pay contracts, where one has the real figure, and the other is for the taxman.

Cui has since walked back on his accusations of such contracting, saying he did not mean to target Fan directly. Fan’s representatives vigorously denied the allegations, which they called slanderous.

However, the release triggered a broad inquiry into the entertainment industry from the State Administration of Taxation, with a brisk warning: “If violations of tax laws and regulations are found, they will be handled in strict accordance with the law.”

While it’s not clear whether violations have been found, some of Fan’s most high-profile commercial relationships seem to be suffering. The German accessories brand Montblanc confirmed to the New York Times (paywall) that it had terminated her contract, which began in April. And it was only after an inquiry from the Times, the paper reported, that her image reappeared on the website of the De Beers diamond company.

Fans and reporters have speculated that the actress may have been arrested in her home country or fled to Los Angeles seeking asylum.

Silence from Chinese authorities

Whatever the answer, official channels seem resolutely closed, with the Chinese government remaining mum. An official with a local security bureau allegedly tasked with her case told the Times: “The situation is that we all speak with one voice from top to bottom: that is that we don’t accept interviews and we have no comment.”

However, the authorities have announced new limits (paywall) on what actors can earn, even in privately financed films, attempting to stop the glitziest A-listers from taking home paychecks in excess of 40% of production costs. Though the official statement didn’t mention Fan by name, it did say the industry was “distorting social values” and “fostering money worship tendencies.”

The state-run Chinese publication Securities Daily added fuel to the fire last week when it reported that Fan was now “under control” of Chinese authorities, and would “accept the legal decision.” The story reverberated around Chinese social media, then vanished without a trace or explanation.

Then, last Sunday, a group of academics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published a “social responsibility” ranking of China’s 100 biggest stars, across “professional work, charitable actions and personal integrity.” Fan was at the bottom of the list. The Hollywood Reporter described the list as “political pandering” rather than legitimate social science—but it suggests that those in the know feel there is something worth pandering to.