Just a few months ago, Fan Bingbing was China's highest-paid actress, the go-to face for Chinese luxury and set to co-star in Universal's upcoming female-ensemble thriller 355 opposite Jessica Chastain, Penelope Cruz and Lupita Nyong'o.
Now she's essentially missing in action, her whereabouts unknown and her name maligned in China's state-backed media. Fan, best known outside China for starring as Blink in the X-Men franchise, hasn't been seen in public since July 1. She also has been silent on social media since July 23. Her mysterious disappearance has sparked a wave of speculation among Chinese fans and onlookers, with rumors ranging from claims that she is under the custody of Chinese authorities to reports that she has escaped to Los Angeles to seek asylum in the United States.
The Hollywood Reporter reached out to Fan's reps, but have not, as yet, received a reply.
Established facts are scarce, but what's clear is that Fan's previously high-power brand is under considerable pressure in China. The trouble for the actress began earlier this summer when her name became the focus of a very public tax evasion scandal that engulfed the Chinese entertainment industry.
The huge pay and myriad lifestyle perks of Hollywood movie stars may be a cliche of the U.S. entertainment industry, but in China, the government has tried to limit the earnings of top actors for years. Authorities argue that the huge salaries of elite celebrities are distorting the local film industry and that lavish celebrity lifestyles are sending the wrong signal to China's youth, encouraging "money worship" instead of "core socialist values." China's film regulators have introduced various mechanisms to try to tamp down star remuneration, from outright caps to heavy taxes for high-end earners.
In July, a disgruntled TV host leaked documents demonstrating an alleged tax-dodge scheme by an unnamed major star — instantly identified online as Fan. The materials were said to reveal the apparently common, but thoroughly illegal, practice of "yin-yang contracting," whereby production companies provide actors with two sets of pay contracts: one small one to submit to the tax authorities, and a second revealing the star's much larger true pay. The leaked docs were said to show that Fan tried to claim $1.56 million (RMB10 million) for four days work on an upcoming Chinese film when her secret pay actually totaled an additional $7.8 million (RMB 50 million).
Fan's representatives strenuously denied the allegations, saying that they amounted to slander and that she had hired a prominent law firm in Beijing to explore pressing charges. But various authorities in the Chinese government also announced that they would be launching a series of investigations, including one in China's Jiangsu Province, where Fan's company is based.
In the weeks since, the crackdown on celeb pay in China has only escalated, with many of the country's most prominent TV and film companies voluntarily signing a joint pledge to abide by the government's wishes.
Meanwhile, Fan's public profile continues to take hits. Hong Kong tabloid The Apple Daily — known for occasionally making spurious claims — alleged in an Aug. 31 report that the actress had been spotted at a Los Angeles immigration office. The paper went further by citing an unnamed "industry source" who said that Fan was heeding the advice of none less than Jackie Chan, who had urged her to seek asylum in the U.S. (Chan's company promptly pushed back against the claim as "nonsense").
Last week, the drama took another turn when a state-run Chinese publication, Securities Daily, reported that Fan actually had been placed “under control” by authorities in China, and would “accept the legal decision.” The story instantly went viral on Chinese social media, only to be retracted without explanation hours later, fueling still more speculation.
The latest shot came last Sunday when a group of academics from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences published a report ranking the social responsibility of China's 100 biggest stars — with Fan scoring dead last. The study purported to assess Chinese celebrities according to their "professional work, charitable actions and personal integrity," determining whether they are a "strong role model" or have a "negative" social impact on China. Actor Xu Zheng, star of last summer's biggest hit, the socially minded dramedy Dying to Survive, ranked first with a social responsibility score of 78 percent. Fan, meanwhile, received the lowest possible score — zero percent.
By all appearances, the report is a piece of political pandering rather than anything like a legitimate work of social science. Yet it has only added to Fan's woes: shortly after its publication, the study was picked up and discussed by China's official state media outlets, including the People's Daily and Xinhua.