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Fan Bingbing, China’s most famous — and recently “disappeared” — actress, is back in Beijing and at her liberty, according to local sources.
The star was released from secret detention and returned to the Chinese capital about two weeks ago, as Beijing regulators concluded their investigation into her tax evasion case, according to a report Thursday in the South China Morning Post, which cited sources “with knowledge of the case.”
On Wednesday, China’s tax authorities slapped Fan with a fine equivalent to about $130 million (nearly 892 million yuan) for tax evasion and other offenses. She then issued her first public statement in months — a groveling apology to the Communist Party of China and the public at large, admitting to all wrongdoing and begging for forgiveness.
A central issue that remained unclear, however, was where Fan had been during the intervening months, and whether she had regained her freedom. The star, usually a ubiquitous presence at glamorous events of East and West, still hasn’t been seen in public since July 1.
A senior film executive in Beijing told THR on Thursday that they had been in contact with Fan since her statement. “She has regained her liberty and is in relatively good spirits,” the exec said, asking not to be named because of the case’s ongoing sensitivity in China.
According to the SCMP, the star was held under “residential surveillance at a designated location,” an official Chinese form of secret detention. She was reportedly kept in a “holiday resort” used to investigate Chinese officials suspected of corruption, in a suburb of Wuxi in coastal Jiangsu province, where her embattled company is based.
The practice of “residential surveillance at a designated location” was introduced into Chinese criminal law in 2012. The system allows the Chinese police to detain anyone suspected of endangering state security, plotting terrorism or significant corruption at an undisclosed location for up to six months without access to legal counsel or family contact. The practice has been regularly condemned by international rights groups since its introduction.
Fan’s return to the public sphere followed a script many in the Chinese film industry had privately anticipated: an enormous, signal-sending fine, followed by a carefully orchestrated apology — but none of the bad optics of China’s most glamorous movie star being hauled off to jail, which may have appeared too draconian even for the People’s Republic of China.
The timing was also notable, if predictable, to many insiders. The authorities chose the middle of China’s weeklong patriotic National Day holiday to unfurl their globally news-making handling of Fan — a time when China’s stock exchanges are closed, avoiding the potential for market turmoil caused by a potential crash in entertainment stocks (all eyes are now on Monday when trading resumes).
As the staggering size of Fan’s penalties were unveiled — around $130 million in total — the natural question was whether she could possibly afford it, and just how wealthy “China’s highest paid actress actually is.” The State Administration of Taxation said Fan will only escape criminal charges if she pays all the money by an undisclosed deadline, according to state news outlet Xinhua.
One of the very most famous faces from film and television during China’s unprecedented box-office boom era — when salaries for top stars exploded — Fan is undoubtedly rich, fantastically so. In addition to prominent roles in films like Feng Xiaogang’s Cell Phone and Bryan Singer’s X-Men: Days of Future Past, she has also been known as a fashion icon, serving as the public face in China for brands as various as Montblanc, Louis Vuitton, Adidas, De Beers and fashion house Guerlain.
According to the SCMP’s estimates, Fan earned about $208 million (1.4 billion yuan) between 2003 and 2016; and Forbes pegs her 2017 earnings at a whopping $43.5 million (300 million yuan). Just prior to Fan’s tax evasion scandal exploding into public view in June, Chinese social media was awash with rumors that she had bought a luxury condo in Shanghai for nearly $40 million (270 million yuan).
Still, such estimates undoubtedly involve a fair degree of speculation and hazy guesswork. (Consider, after all, that Fan’s whole ongoing legal debacle stems from her various machinations over the years to obscure her true income, and that even the Chinese government apparently didn’t have anything like a full account of her wealth until its recent investigations).
But the common thinking in Beijing industry circles has it that the authorities — which have been peering into her accounts for months — wouldn’t bother to levy a fine that they had no hope of recouping. And given that she’ll most likely be headed to a Chinese prison if she fails to pay in full, most are betting that Fan will find a way to assemble the $130 million.
As she put it in her apology letter on Wednesday: “I will try my best to overcome all difficulties, raise funds, pay taxes, and pay fines according to the final decision of the tax authorities.”
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