The breathless headlines surrounding the mysterious disappearance of Fan Bingbing, 37, peaked Sunday with noir-style reports that Bingbing’s fate may involve her alleged “liaison” with China’s “most feared man.”
That would be Wang Qishan, President Xi Jinping’s powerful hatchet man and second-in-command in China.
“Firstly, someone is trying to use Fan Bingbing to get to Wang Qishan,” China’s most vengeful and gossipy exiled billionaire Guy Wengwuo told the Mail on Sunday. “Secondly, somebody wants to shut Fan up.”
Sounds sinister—and also a narrative from about 40 years ago. Instead it seems as if Bingbing, last seen July 1, was actually the victim of her own mega-success, and ran afoul of a jealous, 55-year-old male colleague who knew how to use the country’s burgeoning crackdown on tax evasion and Western values to bring her down hard.
Chinese officials have issued statements saying Bingbing was accused of tax evasion, along with director Feng Xiaogang, but those reports often disappear hours after they go online.
The actress’ disappearance, which has captivated China as well as the rest of the world, is part of a bigger story involving massive money, corruption and revenge in the red-hot Chinese film industry. It involves some of China’s biggest stars and producers and is somewhat reminiscent of the early 1980s Hollywood financial scandal chronicled in the book Indecent Exposure.
As financially and media-savvy as Jennifer Lopez, Bingbing is China’s biggest movie star and a global fashion icon who was the toast of the Oscars and the Cannes just five years ago.
She crossed over into American cinema with roles in Iron Man 3 and X-Men: Days of Future Past, and showed up at Cannes this year at the height of #MeToo as part of the cast of an upcoming spy film called 355 starring Jessica Chastain and Penelope Cruz. She was known as a relentless workaholic, social-media queen (her Weibo account has over 62 million followers but has not been active since May) and headed her own studios in China as well as an exploding brand empire.
Bingbing has been listed by Forbes as the highest-paid Chinese celebrity every year since 2013.
What she was not showing enough of, according to a Beijing fashion influencer who’s followed Bingbing since the start of her career, was so-called “social responsibility” that the government has decreed its citizens, especially the rich, famous ones, must demonstrate.
Earlier this month Chinese state media released a report showing she’d been given a 0 percent social responsibility rating.
Bingbing also may have been playing too fast and loose with her financial empire, even though she was aware of the danger. Since her disappearance, Chinese officials have begun to rail even more against “money worship” and “distorted values” but Bingbing was vulnerable to investigation at any time given her flamboyant lifestyle.
“She understood,” a popular Chinese fashion influencer told The Daily Beast. “Everybody understands. But most of Chinese people think, oh, the law does not punish that many offenders. There are simply a lot of people cheating. But it is clear that the Chinese government has recently been more stringent on enforcement of taxes, not only towards individuals but also towards companies. Like in many other countries, the public interprets this as the government needing more money.”
Bingbing, who was still active on social media until July 23, was apparently “disappeared” by Chinese officials as if she were a rebellious political dissident from the 1990s.
As part of the government’s crackdown on tax evasion, Bingbing is believed to be either under house arrest or sitting in a “black center” where Taiwanese media reported she was “in a miserable state.”
Her brilliant career, which included lucrative endorsement deals for everything from Guerlain and Louis Vuitton to Chopard and Montblanc, has been shut down—possibly forever.
But the twist here seems to be that there was no government conspiracy. Instead, Chinese media reports out of Hong Kong and Taiwan are rife with the Mozart and Amadeus tale of Chinese TV host and producer Cui Yongyuan and Bingbing, who often feuded.
It all started in early June when Yongyuan, who had beef with Bingbing going back years, published pictures on his Weibo account showing two different contracts—one for 10 million yuan ($1.56 million) and the other for 50 million yuan ($7.8 million)—for a film role in Cell Phone 2, allegedly signed by Bingbing. Called “yin-yang” contracts, stars use the ones with the lower figure to report to tax authorities.
Yongyuan and Bingbing, who had come up together in elite Chinese pop culture and cinema circles, still were worlds apart. Yongyuan was known as a combative TV “truth talker” and Bingbing had become a global superstar.
Though Yongyuan initially presented his leak of Bingbing’s alleged dueling work contracts as something for greater societal good (he’d later claim Bingbing had no knowledge of the disparate contracts), his real motive may have been anger over a Bingbing movie said to be based on an unflattering portrait of him.
Cell Phone, the best-selling domestic movie of 2005, came out two years after Yongyuan temporarily retired due to depression. He said watching the movie sent him into another downward spiral.
This year, when Yongyuan heard a sequel was planned, he reached out to screenwriter Liu Zhenyun to make sure the same title would not be used, according to overseas reports. Yongyuan published texts between the two on his Weibo account in which Zhenyun appears to assure him it will be a different title.
Then Yongyuan spotted selfies Bingbing posted from the set of the sequel, which clearly showed it is called Cell Phone 2.
“What did they expect him to do,” the Chinese fashion influencer said. “He lives for this stuff, it’s war.”
As to whether Bingbing will be able to return to her career after a period of arrest, no one seems to know.