What happened to Fan Bingbing? It’s the mystery that has embroiled the entire Chinese film industry and beyond—where is the nation’s most famous female actress? What has happened to one of the country’s most recognizable faces?
Bingbing, although not a major American star (and not to be confused with Li Bingbing, who was just in The Meg), has had a number of small roles in major American films such as Iron Man 3 and X-Men: Days of Future Past, along with numerous modeling and endorsement contracts for luxury brands. She has more than 62 million followers on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter, and also maintains an American social media presence. Or at least she used to. Following the Cannes Film Festival in May, at which she appeared to promote a film with Jessica Chastain, Marion Cotillard, Penelope Cruz and Lupita Nyong’o, Bingbing has seemingly vanished off the face of the Earth. The 37-year-old actress seemingly hasn’t been seen by anyone, and the case of her disappearance is a particularly strange one for a number of reasons.
Now, if such an event were to occur with a celebrity in the United States, the country’s news media would be beside themselves with coverage, and prominent politicians would be busy donating their thoughts and prayers for a safe return. Imagine if Jennifer Lawrence, for instance, had been missing in the U.S. for three months, with the possibility of foul play. In China, however, Bingbing’s disappearance seems to have coincided with a strange attitude of national disdain. For example, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and Beijing Normal University created a ranking of “social responsibility” among 100 Chinese celebrities last week, and the published list puts Fan Bingbing at the very bottom. What is this meant to imply? That the actress suddenly is viewed with disdain by the Chinese government?
That could very well be the case, even if it’s not the direct reason for Bingbing’s disappearance. In May, before the disappearance, there was an accusation by a retired state television anchor, Cui Yongyuan, who published contracts from an upcoming Fan Bingbing film on Weibo that appeared to show a disparity between the reported, taxable salaries and the actual salaries that stars were being paid. These so-called “yin and yang contracts” are apparently a common way to avoid taxes in China, according to the New York Times,, but the size of Yongyuan’s accusation seems to have spurred a national Chinese investigation into the entire entertainment industry. That investigation has already yielded a change in the law, which states that “no one actor can now earn more than 70 percent of the entire cast, or more than 40 percent of production costs.” It’s an intense bit of Communist political practice that is aimed at the entertainment industry, which is accused of “fostering money worshiping tendencies.” As the Chinese government announced at the time: “If violations of tax laws and regulations are found, they will be handled in strict accordance with the law.”
Still, that doesn’t exactly explain the disappearance of Bingbing. Although the Chinese government is undoubtedly very strict, it’s not likely to secretly imprison (or “disappear”) one of its biggest public entertainment figures over a matter of tax evasion. It makes one wonder what else could possibly be lurking under the surface of this story, but one thing seems certain—Bingbing did something to piss off the Chinese government, who were slow to acknowledge the disappearance. Accordingly, the actress’s sponsors have now been dumping her en masse in the interest of maintaining good relations with the Chinese government and its growing market for luxuries. She’s even apparently been edited out of several upcoming films, which raises the question—what do these film studios know that we don’t? To quote The New York Times:
Several of the brands she represents also have distanced themselves from her. They include Swisse Wellness, an Australian company, which announced it was suspending use of her name, the Sydney Morning Herald reported on Wednesday. A duty free store in Thailand did the same.
The complete silence of the Chinese government in terms of the case only makes it appear more sinister as a result. It’s a chilly reminder of how things can operate in a more or less totalitarian regime. We don’t know when, or if, anyone will ever see China’s most famous actress again—and the people at the top aren’t talking about it. As quoted by The New York Times, an official of the Public Security Bureau said only the following: “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.”
Check back for future updates on the case of Fan Bingbing.