If there’s anyone who personifies China’s celebrity culture, Fan Bingbing 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.” She is an actress, model and singer who earned more in 2016 than actresses Amy Adams and Charlize Theron, according to Forbes.
But in July, the celebrity suddenly vanished.
A clue that emerged Tuesday has deepened speculation that she ran afoul of Chinese authorities. A state-affiliated think tank and Beijing university ranked Fan 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.
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.
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.”
Given the Chinese government’s propensity for secrecy, there probably won’t be any solid news regarding Fan 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.