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Fan Bingbing Disappearance: Questions Hang Over Chinese Actress and Her Projects

Since Fan Bingbing disappeared from public view in July, rumors have swirled that China’s most prominent actress is no longer at liberty – either in prison or under house arrest as a result of a scandal over celebrity salaries and alleged tax evasion.

Neither her representatives nor the Chinese authorities are commenting on Fan’s unusual absence. But the questions that hang over her fate are beginning to cast a cloud over the projects she is involved in, including high-profile all-female action movie “355” and the luxury brands that clamored to hire her as a spokeswoman.

355,” produced by Jessica Chastain, was the top-selling project at Cannes this year. (Fan and Chastain have been friends since they worked together on the Cannes jury in 2017.) Sources close to the production tell Variety that there is no need to rethink yet as the movie is not scheduled to shoot until mid-2019. But whether “355” can go ahead without Fan is unclear. She is not an investor, but the exit of the film’s major Chinese star could lead to the loss of the film’s $20 million pre-sale to Huayi Bros.

Among Fan’s previous credits are “X-Men: Days of Future Past,” “Iron Man 3” and “I Am Not Madame Bovary.”

Fan has also been the public face of such brands as Montblanc, Louis Vuitton, De Beers, and fashion house Guerlain. So far, only Montblanc is reported to have severed its connections with Fan, but she has been conspicuously absent from the other campaigns. Guilt by association is particularly worrisome in China, where government displeasure can quickly doom a person’s or a company’s prospects.

Fan appears to have drawn greater official scrutiny after leaked documents seemed to show that she made use of “yin-yang” contracts, in which double contracts are issued for the same work, but only the lower-value one is declared to tax authorities. Fan has denied the allegations, but she has not been seen in public since a July 1 visit to a children’s hospital, and her social media accounts have been silent.

China’s tax administration has ordered an investigation into the use of yin-yang contracts. The Communist government has a history of taking down prominent public figures as a warning to other high fliers and the general public. In 2002, actress Liu Xiaoqing was jailed for a year for tax evasion.

As for which government agency might be investigating and even detaining Fan, speculation has ranged widely. Besides tax authorities, the State Administration of Foreign Exchange could be interested in her. Other wealthy celebrities in recent years have been accused of foreign-exchange violations as they moved some of their money abroad.

Or Fan could have been forced out of sight by the State Administration of Press Publishing Radio Film and Television, which oversees the entertainment industry, in an escalation of its crackdown on celebrity misconduct. Earlier this year, the agency was brought under the direct control of the Communist Party’s Propaganda Department.

Other possibilities are authorities in Jiangsu province, home to Wuxi Studios, and Xinjiang province, where Khorgos, a city not far from the border with Kazakhstan, has become the headquarters of several movie companies, on paper at least. Both places offer significantly lower tax rates than the top rate of 45% salary tax. Fan, who has an estimated annual earning power of between $30 million and $40 million, is believed to have a Khorgos-registered outfit.

Representatives at Fan’s Studio, Fan’s management company, and at CAA in Los Angeles have declined to comment on the star’s status and whereabouts.

The entertainment industry has mounted its own response to the scandal and the specter of a government crackdown. Since Fan dropped from view, TV shows have capped their payments to celebrities, and leading production companies have signed an industry pact setting ceilings on appearance fees and on the proportion of a series’ budget that can go to top cast.

The shares of many major Chinese entertainment firms have sunk in value in recent weeks. Some, such as Huayi Bros., which is down 36% since June 1, have fallen as a direct result of connections to the tax-evasion scandal. Others have tumbled from fear of contagion and concerns that the sector may be further probed and regulated.

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