Fan Bingbing is one of China’s biggest celebrities, a ubiquitous actress, model and singer who earned more in 2016 than Hollywood A-listers such as Amy Adams and Charlize Theron, according to Forbes.
But in July, the “X-Men” actress suddenly vanished. And in the weeks since, the mystery surrounding her disappearance from public view has only deepened amid speculation that she ran afoul of Chinese authorities.
The latest clue emerged Tuesday after a state-affiliated think tank and Beijing university ranked Fan dead last in their annual “Social Responsibility Report” — she earned a 0 out of 100 — citing her “negative social impact,” among other things.
The report, which was widely covered by state media, didn’t shed any more light on Fan’s predicament, but it does add to the sense that China's Communist Party is sending a message to the country’s burgeoning entertainment industry.
In June, days before Fan disappeared from all public events and stopped posting on social media, the party’s propaganda department, which plays a key role in media regulation and censorship, issued a notice chastising the film industry for “distorting social values,” “fostering money worship tendencies” and encouraging Chinese youths to “blindly chase celebrities.”
Other reports have since emerged that Fan is on the hook technically for tax evasion. She was accused this year on social media of signing two copies of a film contract — a practice colloquially dubbed a “yin-yang” agreement, wherein the undervalued version is submitted to tax authorities.
Even as the Communist Party steps up its push to create a Chinese cultural juggernaut that competes with the United States in “soft power,” it has become increasingly uncomfortable with the mass culture it has spawned.
In recent years, media regulators have cracked down on the reality TV industry for manufacturing child stars and warned producers against making shows that serve as “venues for displaying fame and wealth.” Propaganda authorities started inserting short vignettes reminding audiences of China’s “core socialist values” before screening feature films by the likes of Jackie Chan.
Last year, 100 top Chinese filmmakers and pop stars were summoned to study the Communist Party’s 19th Party Congress and President Xi Jinping's political theory — a situation that online wags compared to locking Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift in a room and making them read and praise President Trump’s book “The Art of the Deal.”
If there’s anyone who personifies China’s celebrity culture, Fan is it. Since exploding onto the scene as a teenager in the late 1990s, Fan, now 36, has starred in a string of Chinese hits, culminating with a role in 2014's “X-Men: Days of Future Past.” Her name is commonly associated with Chinese youths’ newfound obsession with plastic surgery, and her aquiline nose and distinctive jaw line are said to be popular requests. Fan's face is everywhere on Chinese streets, hawking Cartier jewelry, Mercedes sedans, Moët & Chandon champagne and Louis Vuitton couture.
As her disappearance has dragged on in recent weeks, more rumors have surfaced that Fan is facing an acting ban — or even house arrest. Overseas censorship trackers have noted that social media posts and news reports about Fan's whereabouts have quickly been scrubbed.
Given the Chinese government’s propensity for secrecy, there probably won't be any solid news until the matter is sorted out behind closed doors, and Fan pays up for her rumored tax transgressions and makes a contrite statement to the public.
Until then, the message from the country’s leaders is silent but clear: The entertainment industry may thrive but only on the party's terms.