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COMMENTARY: Treatment of Film Star Fan BingBing Reveals New Front in Beijing's Authoritarianism

Massive fine for tax evasion after her 3-month disappearance furthers Xi Jinping’s war on non-conformist ideas and is already hitting the movie industry.

Mark Melnicoe
    Oct 06, 2018 5:05 AM  PT
COMMENTARY: Treatment of Film Star Fan BingBing Reveals New Front in Beijing's Authoritarianism

A big chill has settled over the film and TV industry in China after perhaps its biggest star – Fan BingBing – emerged Wednesday to admit she's guilty of income tax evasion.

Fan's three-month disappearance spawned rumors that she had been abducted or arrested or that she was simply taking time off from a soaring career. Chinese tax authorities announced Wednesday that Fan was being fined 884 million yuan ($129 million) after signing so-called yin-yang contracts.

Apparently common in China's entertainment industry, A-list actors will sign one contract for the actual amount they will be paid and a second one – usually a fraction of the real one - that is given to the tax authorities. Fan must pay back taxes for herself and film companies she controls plus huge penalties. She will avoid criminal prosecution if she pays the entire amount within an unspecified time.

Not seen or heard from since a post on the Weibo social media platform on July 2, Fan emerged with a groveling apology, telling the country that she "did not distinguish between national, social and personal interests."

In a long statement laced with Communist Party propaganda, she went on: "I owe my success to the support of my country and people. Without the Party and the state's great policies, without the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing. Today, I am racked with fear and worry over the mistakes I made! I have failed the support of my country, the trust of society, and the love of my devoted fans! I once again offer my sincere apologies!"

Fan is among China highest-paid entertainers after starring in such domestic hits as "Cell Phone" and "Double Xposure." She has gone on to international fame via smaller roles in Hollywood blockbusters "Iron Man 3" and "X-Men: Days of Future Past."

Fan, 37, also pitches for such luxury brands as Cartier and Mercedes-Benz, and Forbes magazine pegged her 2017 earnings at 300 million yuan (nearly $44 million).

That one of China's biggest movie stars could be made such an obvious example sent shivers through the burgeoning film industry in mainland China and Hong Kong even before she emerged this week.

The scandal is already cutting TV and film production, the South China Morning Post reported. The Hong Kong newspaper quoted Tenky Tin Kai-man, who heads the Federation of Hong Kong Filmmakers, as saying a slowdown started right about the time Fan disappeared from public view.

 "Most of the production work on both movies and television series was put on hold," he said.

"In the face of the uncertainty, everybody is choosing to wait and see, rather than start shooting," Tin told the Post, adding that it was inevitable there would be a severe supply shortage in the months and possibly years ahead.

Alfred Cheung Kin-ting, a veteran film director based in Hong Kong, told the Post he expected two years of "cold winters" in China's film and television industry as investors avoid uncertainty and put their productions on hold.

The reason is that China's State Administration of Taxation made it clear that this was only the beginning of a campaign to tighten the screws on the TV and film business. It set a year-end deadline for companies and individuals in the industry to come forward to pay any previously evaded taxes. Those who come clean will not face legal punishment or fines, it said.

More important than hurting China's booming film industry, however, the move signals yet another front in President Xi Jinping's campaign against ideas that fail to toe the party line.

Various news reports in China said Fan was detained at a "holiday resort" in the city of Wuxi, which lies between Shanghai and Nanjing in Jiangsu province. According to the London-based Guardian newspaper, Fan was held under a 2013 law known as "residential surveillance at a designated location" - a legalistic euphemism for disappearance and forced detention.

"In practice it often means someone is held in secret and denied all contact with the outside world," Michael Caster, a human rights advocate and editor of "The People's Republic of the Disappeared," a collection of first-hand accounts of victims of such forced detentions, told the Guardian. "Many of them were subject to one form of torture or another, from prolonged sleep deprivation to physical pain, beatings, stress positions, mental abuse and threatening family members."

That would explain the forced-confession tone of Fan's apology. It's one thing to be fined (even if excessively) for tax evasion. It's quite another to be locked up incommunicado and tortured for an economic crime.

Such treatment in China has previously been reserved for political dissidents – mostly writers and lawyers. This kind of action against an actress with 63 million followers on Weibo is a brazen display by President Xi. It serves as a clear warning that a leadership that goes to great lengths to quash dissent and free-flowing ideas online is now taking dead aim at China's film industry.

That can't be good for nation's soft-power efforts to export movies and other forms of entertainment as it seeks to match its global economic influence. Xi knows this but has calculated the tradeoff is worth it.

In June, the Communist Party's Central Publicity Department and four other government departments issued a directive that limits salaries for stars in films and TV dramas, the Singapore Straits Times reported this week. Extravagant pay and tax evasion have fueled "money worship" and twisted social values, the directive said, adding that the industry should put "social benefit" first.

Xi is making a statement that he wants to keep out not only foreign ideas, but also domestic thought that strays too far.