What if Scarlett Johansson disappeared for several months and no U.S. media was allowed to publicly talk about it? What if it turned out that she didn’t disappear but was brought “under control and about to receive legal judgment” by the U.S. government?
I know how ridiculous this hypothetical scenario sounds. I apologize to Johansson and her fans and can assure them and our readers that something like this won’t happen in a free country like the United States (at least not yet). But a hypothetical scenario for Johansson is the harsh reality for Chinese actress Fan Bingbing, and we may not be as far from it as we think.
According to Forbes, Fan is the highest-paid actress in China and ranks number five of the world’s 10 highest-paid actresses. She made $46 million in 2017. She appeared in “X-Men: Days of Future Past” and “Iron Man III.” Although she isn’t widely known in the West, she is a mega-celebrity in China, with more 68 million Sina Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter) followers. As a spokeswoman for many international and domestic fashion brands, the images of her beautiful and flawless face can be seen everywhere in China. Many Chinese women spend thousands of dollars on plastic surgery so they can look a little more like her.
Just when it seemed that her star couldn’t be any brighter, her fortunes took a drastic turn this summer after Cui Yongyuan, an outspoken and controversial television host on China’s government-run Central Television station, alleged through social media that Fan was involved in “yin-yang” contracts (fake and real contracts) to hide her true income and evade taxes.
These “yin-yang” contracts are illegal but very common in China. From property sales to soccer clubs, many people use them. But according to Cui, Fan is a bad actress and a criminal. To prove his point, Cui even posted photos of two contracts, one for 10 million yuan ($1.56 million) and the other for 50 million yuan ($7.8 million)—which he claimed were for four days of Fan’s work in the upcoming Chinese film “Cell Phone 2.” While the lower contract was reported for tax purposes, Fan was purportedly paid under the higher contract.
Although a week later Cui apologized to Fan and declared in an interview that “Fan actually had nothing to do with the two contracts,” his apology was too little, too late. China’s tax authority launched an investigation right after Cui’s social media post. Soon after, Fan disappeared from the public eye. The last post on the her personal Weibo account is dated June 2, and no one saw or heard from her for more than four months.
Chinese authorities denied Fan was secretly arrested. A mega-star like her mysteriously disappeared, and Chinese media were banned from reporting on the story. Any Chinese media attempt to report on her was quickly taken offline. Fan was first rumored to be subjected to a travel ban by the tax authority and later was said to be in police custody, although she was not officially charged with any wrongdoing.
Fan finally resurfaced in the public Wednesday in a letter of apology posted on social media, in which she “admits” to committing tax evasion and asks the public to forgive her. Here is a translation from Variety. Anyone who admires China and thinks today’s China is an open and free society, unlike the Communist China under Chairman Mao, should read Fan’s letter word for word. It’s a sad, pathetic and painful read.
In her letter, Fan said she “endured an unprecedented amount of pain” although she didn’t get into any kind of details. “I feel ashamed and guilty for what I did, and here, I offer my sincere apology to everyone,” she said. Then she launched into Chinese-style self-criticism:
For a long period of time, I did not uphold the responsibility of safeguarding the interests of my country and our society against my personal interests … Throughout these days of my cooperation with the taxation authorities’ investigation of my accounts as well as my company’s, I have realized that, as a public figure, I should’ve observed the law, setting a good example for society and the industry. I shouldn’t have lost my ability to govern myself in the face of economic interests, leading myself to break the law.
It was reported that Fan “agreed” to pay a fine of close to $130 million. She promises she “will follow the final order given by the taxation authorities and will do my best to raise funds to pay back the taxes and fines.”
She went on to characterize her huge success, saying, “Thanks to guidance from veterans as well as love from the audience, together with my own hard work, I have achieved a little bit of success in my career.” But of course, she can’t even claim such a “small” success in her career without giving credit to the Chinese Communist Party. She continues, “My success owes to the support from my country and the people. Without the great policies of the [Communist] Party and the country, without the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing.”
Fan clearly didn’t write this letter, at least not the entire letter, by herself. Someone from the authorities probably wrote most of the verbiage and ordered her to post it in exchange for her freedom. The only sentence that is even close to sounding like it comes from her is this one: “Today I’m facing enormous fears and worries over the mistakes I made!” The rest of the letter is just propaganda garbage.
Fan didn’t explain where she had been for the last four months. No Chinese media dared to touch this sensitive subject, either. It was reported by media outside China that the rumors were right: She was secretly arrested and held under “residential surveillance at a designated location,” a form of secret detention that allows Chinese police to detain anyone for any reason at an undisclosed location for up to six months without access to legal counsel or family contact.
It is said that after this public apology and agreeing to pay the record fine, Fan is unlikely to be criminally charged. But after losing freedom for four months and being publicly humiliated, what difference does it make?
China’s movie industry is one of the most corrupt sectors in China. Fan could be guilty of tax evasion. But without a free media and independent judiciary, it’s very difficult for outsiders to determine whether Fan is innocent or guilty of anything.
Even if Fan is guilty as charged, how the Chinese authorities approached her case and the way this saga ended should deeply trouble Chinese people and international observers. The non-independent judicial system is completely at the service of the Communist Party and the government it leads. There was no due process and transparency. Once the government decides you’re guilty of something, you are simply “disappeared” from the public eye.
Fan is not the first rich and famous person in China who simply disappeared from the public eye and was secretly detained without official criminal charges. Xiao Jianhua, a Chinese-born billionaire who has close financial ties with some of China’s most powerful families, was taken by the Chinese police from his apartment in Hong Kong in January 2017 and sent back to an undisclosed detention center in mainland China. Just like Fan, Xiao disappeared from the public eye without a charge, nor legal representation or family contact, for more than 15 months now.
Finally, the South China Morning Post reported last month that Xiao is likely to face a trial soon, after his “crimes” and “punishment” have already been determined by the authorities. That’s how the judicial system works in a totalitarian regime.
But China’s Communist Party always takes it a step further. It loves to enforce thought-control through forcing public confession and self-criticism out of its targets. Chairman Mao loved to torment his colleagues and humiliate them through forced public self-criticism. Under President Xi, such public shaming of China’s elites happens more often than under his predecessors.
This type of public confession serves as a reminder to the general public who is really in charge in China: the Communist Party. You are only rich and famous if the party allows you to be. So-called celebrities and tycoons are nothing more than tools the party uses to advance its agenda: Celebrities are there to spread positive energy or to quote Fan’s letter, “showcasing our country’s culture on the global stage”; while tycoons are there to help the government build a vibrant economy, acquire technology and businesses that are key to China’s economic success.
But Fan and Xiao’s experiences show that no matter how rich and famous a Chinese person is, he is nobody if he steps outside the party’s ideological and political boundaries. The party can take anyone’s wealth and fame away in the blink of an eye and crush him like a bug.
Why should we care what happened to a Chinese actress? Whether you are a Chinese or an American, tax evasion is bad and illegal. But what’s troubling in how the Fan Bingbing case was handled by Chinese authorities — the lack of due process, lack of transparency, and the authorities’ demand of thought-control.
The last couple weeks, we have witnessed similarities in how the Democrats handled Judge Brett Kavanaugh’s sexual assault accusation: the lack of due process, lack of transparency, the complete abandonment of the presumption of innocence until proven guilty, and the left’s demand of thought-control. The saga of Kavanaugh’s confirmation is a chilling reminder that we are not that far off from totalitarianism.