HONG KONG — Chinese authorities announced staggering fines Wednesday for the country’s most high-profile celebrity, Fan Bingbing, in a case that highlighted both the extent of malfeasance in Chinese show business and the government’s efforts to bring the booming industry to heel.
Tax authorities in eastern China ordered Fan to pay the equivalent of $60 million in back taxes and $70 million in fines after finding she had underreported her earnings for years, the official Xinhua News Agency reported.
Fan, who had conspicuously dropped out of public view in recent months, reappeared on Chinese social media to express shame and remorse for her crimes — but also thanks toward the Communist Party for her celebrity status.
“Recently, I have experienced unprecedented pain and agony, and I have undergone profound thought and reflection,” she wrote. “I feel ashamed and guilty about what I have done, and I sincerely apologize to you all!”
In a long letter to her 63 million followers on the social media site Weibo, Fan, who turned 37 last month, said she owed her gratitude to the government for its role in propping up the entertainment industry.
“Without the great policies of the Communist Party and the state, without the people’s love and care, there would be no Fan Bingbing,” she wrote, adding that she “fully accepted” the investigators’ findings.
Fan’s downfall had been expected for months but still came as a shock for an entertainment industry that has boomed on the back of China’s growing middle class. Known for her roles in domestic blockbusters and Hollywood’s “X-Men” franchise, Fan was a leading draw at the Chinese box office, which reportedly sold nearly $8 billion in tickets last year, a figure that, if true, would approach North America’s.
A ubiquitous face in campaigns for brands such as Mercedes-Benz and Louis Vuitton, Fan was unapologetic about working hard and supporting herself, famously telling an interviewer in 2015 that she never thought to marry rich — she was rich.
Fan’s troubles began in May after a state television personality leaked on social media two versions of her contracts for the film “Air Strike,” starring Bruce Willis. The leaks alleged to show Fan’s “yin-yang contracts,” in which one document vastly understated her pay as $1.7 million for tax accounting purposes while another stated true compensation that was several times higher.
The leaks sparked a social media frenzy and a broader discussion about how Chinese celebrities and wealthy elite routinely bend the rules — just as in other countries. But tax evasion and financial misreporting are widely accepted as almost commonplace in China despite perennial vows by the government to crack down.
After Fan vanished from public view in July, the conspicuous nature of her disappearance only fueled wild rumors — many of which were soon censored — about her possible involvement in high-level political intrigue.
The South China Morning Post reported this week that Fan was held for weeks under “residential surveillance at a designated location,” a mechanism in Chinese law that allows police to sequester and interrogate suspects at secret locations, often in relation to sensitive national security or official corruption cases.
Tax authorities said this week that they would not formally pursue Fan for “criminal responsibility” and effectively close her case if she paid her dues before an undisclosed deadline. Fan has pledged to do so.
Her agent has also been detained for obstructing the investigation by destroying documents, Xinhua reported.
In recent years, Chinese authorities have voiced disapproval at not just the financial conduct of its stars but also the broader celebrity culture that appears incongruous with President Xi Jinping’s ideologically steeped administration.
Regulators have urged movie audiences to study socialist values, pressed entertainers to pore over Xi’s political theory and warned producers against running shows that only serve to “display fame and wealth.”
Around the time Fan fell under investigation in June, film and broadcast regulators announced a new salary cap for A-listers and warned against tax evasion.
Industry executives have been responsible for a deeper rot, the regulators added.
The industry “fosters money worship, misleads young people to chase stars, and distorts social values,” the officials said. “They must take effective measures to rectify them.”
Weeks later, a government think tank released a “social responsibility” report that graded celebrities based on their impact on Chinese society.
Fan’s score? 0 out of 100.