The vanishing act(ress)

How Fan Bingbing became collateral damage in a macho Chinese feud.

By Hung Huang
Illustration by Jean-Philippe Delhomme

A letter from… Beijing. - © System Magazine

How Fan Bingbing became collateral damage in a macho Chinese feud.

I first met Chinese actress Fan Bingbing 15 years ago at a Louis Vuitton store opening in Wenzhou. After dinner, we decided to celebrate at a karaoke bar. Although wearing sunglasses, she was recognized on her way to the private room. Men got up and followed, some tried to touch her, while her agents and the waiters did their best to protect her. Once inside our private room, we could not close the door as about five men rolled up their sleeves, stuck their arms inside and begged Bingbing to autograph their limbs. I watched the actress’s face in that moment; her stoic expression and downcast eyes seemed to be refusing to acknowledge her reality. By now, the whole world knows that Fan Bingbing went missing on July 1, a scapegoat in the Chinese government’s high-profile effort to clean up a supposedly morally lax entertainment industry.

The whole scandal started early this year as a fight between three powerful men: Mr. C., a TV-show host, and his friends, celebrity filmmaker Mr. F. and bestselling novelist Mr. L. Until 2002, when he quit after suffering from depression, Mr. C. was the host of Tell It Like It Is, one of Chinese TV’s most popular shows. He says that back then he told his friends all the behind-the-scenes secrets of being a TV presenter; then, a year later, his now ex-friends released a film called Cell Phone. It was the story of a famous show host who has an affair with his assistant, played by Fan Bingbing. Mr. C. has apparently been holding a grudge about this betrayal and the film for the past 15 years – and in June, he finally lashed out. After hearing on social media that Cell Phone 2 was in the works, he launched a stream-of-consciousness outburst accusing both Mr. F. and Mr. L. of betraying their friendship, taking advantage of his depression, ruining his life, scaring his daughter, causing misery for his wife, and overall, being perfect examples of immoral behaviour so prevalent in China’s entertainment industry.

This caused absolutely no buzz, until Fan Bingbing posted a single tweet to say that she was happily working on Cell Phone 2. Mr. C. considered this a provocation and reacted by posting online two ‘yin-yang contracts’ that he said showed how the actress had been evading tax: the one given to the tax authorities was worth $1.5 million; the private one $7.5 million.

The official government media quickly chimed in accusing the entertainment industry of loose morals, deliberately violating government regulations and evading taxes. Everyone took this as an indictment of Fan Bingbing – who then promptly disappeared from public view. No social-media updates, no interviews, no rebuttal, no happy pictures on a film set, or a video selling cosmetics: on July 1, she simply vanished.

As time went on, the disappearance appeared more and more like detention, meaning that she was in serious trouble, and no one was going to help her. She may be powerful, she may know extremely powerful people in business and politics, but no one was speaking out in her defence. No one was going to risk that now even if (or because) all Chinese are guilty of tax evasion to some degree. The government is well aware of this, so it has periodic crackdowns. The public face of this is usually rich, famous actresses because: 1) misogyny is part of mainstream Chinese culture; 2) men control all the political power, but remain cowards so none will risk political death to defend a sex symbol; 3) making an example of the country’s most famous actress shows everyone that no one is above the law. There is a Chinese saying that says: ‘Kill a chicken to scare the monkeys.’ In this case, Fan Bingbing is the chicken – and while she disappeared, Mr. C., Mr. F. and Mr. L. are all doing just fine. Mr. C. did actually apologize to the actress, saying that he never intended to make her collateral damage in the fight with his ex-friends, but they have remained silent.

And then Fan Bingbing reappeared, virtually at least, requesting forgiveness on her social-media account: ‘Without the good policies of the party and the state, and without
the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing.’ She will not, as a first-time offender, face any criminal charges as long as she pays RMB 883 million (US$129 million) in fines for tax evasion and other offences. At the time of writing, however, Fan Bingbing has still not been seen.

Taken from System No. 12.