The Fan Bingbing saga shows China’s willingness to control overly wealthy celebrities


China’s highest-paid actress Fan Bingbing (X-Men: Days of Future Past) disappeared this summer following accusations of tax evasion. This month, an apology for breaking the law appeared on her social media account, and Fan has been ordered to pay 884 million yuan ($127 million) to avoid criminal prosecution. Last week, she resurfaced in paparazzi shots, but the Chinese release of her upcoming film Air Strike (also commonly translated as Unbreakable Spirit or The Big Bomb), also starring Bruce Willis, was canceled.

In the span of four months, one of the most famous and beloved women in China transformed into a symbol of corruption in a saga that captivated Chinese social media. So what happened?

It all began in May when TV presenter Cui Yongyuan posted screenshots on the social media service Weibo of what appeared to be Fan’s employment contract for an upcoming sequel to the very successful 2003 film Cell Phone. It stated she would earn 10 million yuan ($1.4 million), have two luxury cars and a daily food allowance of 1,500 yuan ($215). Cui used the caption, “Don’t bother acting, you really suck!”

The next day, he posted again, suggesting that Fan was being paid through two different contracts for the movie: one for 10 million yuan and another for 50 million yuan ($7.2 million). Only the first contract would be disclosed to tax authorities, while the second was kept secret so that Fan could avoid paying taxes on it, a common practice known as a “yin-yang contract.” He also stated that the actress only had to work for four days for the combined 60 million yuan.

Fan’s studio responded by threatening to sue Cui for libel. Bizarrely, Cui later apologized for attacking Fan and said in an interview with local media that the two contracts he shared had nothing to do with her, but rather a “gang” of other people who had been involved in drafting them. When Fan was fined in October, however, he encouraged people to boycott Air Strike. He was also able to pocket 100,000 yuan ($14,393) as a whistleblower’s fee for exposing Fan.

In June, Chinese tax authorities announced new rules for the film industry, curbing the ability of top actors like Fan to acquire immense wealth. Actors would no longer be allowed to earn more than 70 percent of the cast’s wages combined, or more than 40 percent of production costs. Although Fan wasn’t mentioned in the announcement, the tax authorities criticized the film industry for “fostering money worship” and allowing young people to “blindly chase celebrities.” The timing and the wording of the announcement indicated that Fan was being targeted because she had amassed too much wealth and influence.

Then in July, Fan vanished. A Chinese news report stated that authorities were investigating her and had barred her from leaving the country. That report was soon deleted, likely pulled by state censors. Social media posts questioning her disappearance were also removed. Despite the censorship, what happened to Fan became a hot topic in China and online; her name was the number one search result on the search engine Baidu the day after her sentence was declared.

Baidu’s top news stories after tax authorities announce Fan Bingbing’s fines.

Over the past two years, Fan has endorsed 122 brands, including Louis Vuitton, Montblanc, Mercedes-Benz, and Cartier. But as her scandal continued, many of those companies began to distance themselves. Thai travel retailer King Power dropped Fan as its brand ambassador in September, and Australian vitamin brand Swisse stopped using Fan in promotional photos around the same time. Montblanc confirmed to The New York Times in September that it had terminated its contract with Fan. In August, prior to Air Strike’s Chinese cancellation, a new poster for the film appeared, excluding Fan. Although she isn’t blacklisted, Fan Bingbing is now a tainted name in China.

Why Fan Bingbing?

China’s film industry is riddled with yin-yang contracts, so why was Fan, in particular, targeted? The most obvious answer is her cultural and financial power; even the popularity of Chinese president Xi Jinping is dwarfed in stature by Fan’s stardom, and that’s precisely the problem.

In March, Xi abolished presidential term limits that would have ended his rule by 2022. The move signaled that China had ended its reform era, where a new leader would take power every 10 years and shape the country in a different way. Some have even compared Xi to Mao Zedong, who developed a personality cult and created the “paramount leader” style of rule, where he would still retain control even when he wasn’t officially the head honcho.

But on social media, Xi doesn’t always fare so well. In fact, it’s the one place people can enjoy some level of free expression by mocking him. Although this mockery is heavily censored, the occasional meme slips through. So many people compared Xi to the portly bear Winnie the Pooh that the government ended up banning a Winnie the Pooh film from the country.

In contrast, social media posts about Fan — and her reputation — were overwhelmingly positive, prior to the tax-evasion scandal. They primarily focused on her beauty and her charity work. Since breaking into the film industry 15 years ago, Fan has become an icon. That’s dangerous to the government, and her gender only compounds the problem.

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Fan once told Chinese reporters, “I don’t need to marry into a wealthy family. I am my own wealthy family.” It was a seemingly innocuous statement that could also be interpreted as subversive to the patriarchal state. The sense that a strong woman could be self-sufficient, not need a man, and even run this world, isn’t just a series of Beyoncé lyrics, but a real threat Beijing is taking seriously. As Jiayang Fan of The New Yorker puts it, a woman rising in power through wealth and fame is a real “existential terror” that the regime is facing.

Fan’s rags-to-riches success story has now become a communist morality tale about how the rich need to be shamed and punished for excess. Perhaps to drive this point home, the Beijing Normal University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences produced survey results in September that found that only nine out of 100 television and film personalities were “socially responsible.” Judging celebrities on their professional work, charitable donations, and overall integrity, the researchers ignored Fan’s substantial charity work and gave her the lowest ranking out of all 100.

On October 3rd, Fan reappeared on Weibo with a “letter of apology.” It reads: “I shouldn’t have lost my ability to govern myself in the face of economic interests, leading myself to break the law,” and, more alarming, that “without the great policies of the [Communist] Party and the country, without the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing.” The apology admits Fan committed tax evasion by signing yin-yang contracts for Air Strike. Even if we are to believe that she wrote that apology herself, it was almost certainly produced under coercive circumstances at the government’s behest.

On the same day Fan reappeared in public, Air Strike’s cancellation in China was announced in a brief post by the film’s director on Weibo. It was “time to let go” after eight years of working on it, he wrote. Now that Fan has resurfaced and apologized, it appears that the government has secured its ill-gotten victory. Other celebrities who have used yin-yang contracts to evade taxes have been given a grace period to pay up before December 31st and be exempt from punishment. Should Fan and the others not make the appropriate payments, their finances will be escalated to criminal cases handled by the police.

For more than a decade, Fan has been a strong, powerful woman adored by the public. Her demure apology and obeisance to Beijing is exactly what the government sought by singling her out: a return to the status quo that would put her in her place. Underneath the surface accusations of tax evasion and extravagant excess, there was another story unfolding: a subtle power struggle between China’s strong woman and its strongman leader. The latter appears to have won.