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The real reason China's most famous actress disappeared for months

In this day and age, it seems like it would be impossible for a world famous actress to disappear without a trace. When everyone's got a camera in their pocket, it's not exactly easy to hide. Wouldn't someone manage to snap a photo of her and spread it on social media? Wouldn't she accidentally reveal her location somehow?

Shockingly, China's most beloved actress, Fan Bingbing, was suddenly completely absent from the public eye from July through October of 2018. Although wild rumors surrounded her disappearance, no one could explain where she had gone, and it seemed like she had just dropped off the face of the Earth. Her fans had no idea what happened, and her inner circle wasn't letting anything slip — in fact, some of her friends and relatives were probably kept in the dark, too. As it turns out, the entire ordeal stemmed from a brewing financial scandal concerning her taxes.

When she finally reappeared, Fan came back to social media to connect with her fans, but stayed tight-lipped when reporters came flocking. Now, the details of her disappearance have been made public. Here's what really went down during Fan's mysterious hiatus.

Her fraudulent tax documents were exposed

It all started when TV host Cui Yongyuan got ahold of Fan's contract for an upcoming film she had signed on to, Cell Phone 2. This was the sequel to the popular Chinese film Cell Phone, the country's highest-grossing film of 2003. As one would expect, Fan was raking in a high salary for her role in the movie: $7.8 million. But Cui had also gotten a different version of Fan's contract —the one she had actually presented to the Chinese tax authorities. This second contract listed a much lower salary of $1.5 million.

This wasn't just an innocent mix up. Fan had deliberately lied about her salary when reporting it for tax purposes, and Cui had just exposed her. Unlike many of the other rumors about Fan that were quickly written off for being baseless nonsense (like the tabloid headlines claiming that her brother is actually her son), this accusation stuck. The contracts didn't lie, and Fan wasn't going to be able to brush it off so easily.

People were stunned by her wealth

Why didn't this big reveal just blow over? After all, tax scandals are nothing new in the world of the rich and famous. But the culture surrounding wealth is different around the world, and among Fan's predominantly Chinese fanbase, the amount of money that the actress was pulling in for only a few days' work on Cell Phone 2 was practically obscene. Before Fan's generation, the idea of a private individual becoming so wealthy was practically unheard of — in fact, it wouldn't have even been possible under the previous government.

Yes, people knew that Fan was rich — after all, she was in wildly popular blockbuster films like the Iron Man and X-Men franchises — but they had no idea she was that rich. Many Chinese citizens still earn relatively low salaries of about $10,000 per year, and Fan's salary seemed astronomical in comparison. The fact that she tried to skirt the rules and avoid paying what she owed made her come across as even greedier.

Her finances suffered immediately

In the days following the release of her contracts, Fan tried to go on as though things were normal, but she started to feel the financial consequences almost immediately. Shares in her companies plummeted by 10%, which is actually the limit for the Chinese stock market. Her reputation had already been tarnished, and people were getting nervous about their associations with her.

The situation was spiraling out of her control. The Chinese government began censoring stories about her online. Everyone was searching her name to find out what was going on, but it was difficult to parse any concrete details. At the time, she was being investigated by a local tax bureau. As bad as things were for Fan, it was about to get worse. And as for the rest of the people in the Chinese entertainment industry? The tax crackdown was expanding beyond Fan, and now, others working in film had to get their financial acts together, too.

She suddenly went missing

Fan didn't explicitly try to dodge the authorities once they got wind of her shady financial dealings, but she did attempt to stick to her normal schedule to the best of her ability. In fact, she even traveled to Tibet for a charity commitment. However, she wasn't going to get off scot free. As much as she might have liked to pretend that things could go on as they were, she still had to deal with the legal ramifications of her actions.

There was another sign of trouble for Fan in July, when she had to cancel a meeting with her production company out of the blue. Why did she call it off so suddenly? Well, she had just been informed that she was being placed on house arrest. The idea of someone as famous as Fan, who had been in the public eye for nearly two decades, being put under house arrest seemed unthinkable. But the saga wasn't over just yet. Shortly after telling her company that she was under house arrest, she stopped contacting anyone at all, and she vanished without a word.

Rumors about her disappearance sprang up

With no real information on Fan's whereabouts, the rumor mill began churning. Many people believed that she had simply up and left China, secretly fleeing so that she wouldn't have to face the public (or the tax investigators). In fact, enough people thought that she was hiding out in the United States with the help of Jackie Chan that he had to come forward and address those claims. It wasn't true, but speculation on Fan's circumstances continued.

Some people thought that Fan and her husband Li Chen had gambled away most of their money on a trip to Las Vegas and were now totally broke and ashamed. The most extreme theory? That Fan was now being held captive in a military prison for having an affair with Wang Qishan, the vice-president of China. All of this turned out to be completely false, of course, but the question lingered — where on earth was Fan? After three months, the public finally got an answer.

She was released from "residential surveillance"

Fan was finally able to break her silence in October 2018. The news broke that she had been under "residential surveillance" for the past three months. This isn't quite the same as house arrest — in fact, Fan wasn't allowed to stay at home at all. She had been taken by the police to a holiday resort near the city of Jiangsu, which does seem like a strange place to essentially hold someone under arrest, but perhaps her celebrity status afforded her this kind of treatment.

Under the residential surveillance system, people are not allowed to contact lawyers or family members for help. She was not allowed to use her phone under any circumstances, let alone make a public statement to let people know where she was. In fact, security was so extreme that Fan was never allowed to be completely alone. She always had eyes on her. She was also forbidden from having a pen and paper to write down any details of her stay.

She posted an apology on social media

When she was released and allowed to use her phone again, Fan immediately got back on social media and shared an emotional, long-awaited update with all of her fans. She used the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo to express her feelings about the entire situation with her millions of followers.

Fan apologized profusely for her actions, saying that she knew she had let down her supporters and made some huge mistakes. She also confessed that she had set a bad example as an actress and a public figure, and admitted that she had been experiencing the pain of regret over the past few months. She ended her post by praising the Chinese government, which she may have done to try to get back into their good graces — or, as some theorize, because someone in the government was telling her what to say. "Without the party and the state, without the love of the people, there would have been no Fan Bingbing!" she wrote.

Her case was used to set an example

Fan was definitely not the only one dodging taxes. She was essentially punished to set an example for everyone else in the industry. Not that she didn't deserve to face the consequences — after all, she did break the law — but the authorities also came down hard on her specifically to discourage other people from doing the same thing.

Shortly after the news about her contracts broke, new rules were implemented for the film industry. Now, actors couldn't earn more than 70% of the cast's wages or more than 40% of the film's production costs. This was supposedly because actors were "fostering money worship" by flaunting their wealth. And investigators began digging into other celebrities' taxes, too. All film companies were given until December 31, 2018 to go over their books and pay back any taxes they owed. They were lucky to get this grace period. Fan wasn't the only offender — she was just the first big name to get caught.

She has a future project lined up

Has Fan been totally blacklisted from the industry? No, not quite. Her name has definitely been dragged through the mud, but she still has her own functioning production company, and she is still slated to appear in an upcoming film, 355, alongside stars like Lupita Nyong'o and Penelope Cruz.

Other directors have expressed that they are still willing to take a chance on her. For example, director Li Yu has stated that she would be happy to work with Fan again, and now, she thinks that Fan will have a deeper emotional well to draw from because of her experience. Despite the scandal, her name still carries a lot of clout, and plenty of her fans have stuck around to see what she will do next. Now that Fan has been back in the real world for a few months, they are waiting for her next move. Some directors might be hesitant to work with her in the future, but chances are she'll continue to forge ahead with her career.

She didn't appear in public for nearly a year

After laying low for several months, Fan is slowly but surely getting back into the spotlight. About seven months after she was officially released from residential surveillance, Fan made her first public appearance in late April 2019, when she attended a gala in Beijing. She hadn't attended any public events since July 2018.

Fan didn't make any statements about what made her decide that it was finally time to get back out there, but perhaps she just thinks that it's been long enough, and she misses her old life. Reactions to her appearance at the gala were mixed — of course, some of her fans were happy to see her return, while other people felt that she didn't deserve a warm welcome. Naturally, it stirred up some discussion of the controversy. But it does look like Fan is determined to embrace her status as a public figure again, even if she is still keeping her life somewhat private for now.

She's barely talking to the press

Fan has still been active on social media since her release, but she's also been reluctant to engage with the press. Although plenty of outlets have run stories about her over the past few months, she has not been responding for comment. Perhaps she's hoping to move past the entire scandal as quickly as possible and doesn't feel that giving her voice to these articles will help her case.

Fan did just give her first interview since her release with the Chinese media outlet Jumeili, but she was careful not to even hint at the scandal. Instead, she simply talked about her cosmetics company and kept things light. Now that she's doing public events again, it seems likely that a reporter will have some serious questions for her on the red carpet at some point. She probably won't be able to avoid that kind of confrontation forever, but she does seem to be putting it off for as a long as possible.

Reception to her return has been mixed

Recently, the Beijing Normal University and the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences released "social responsibility rankings" for Chinese celebrities, with Fan ranking last. Celebrities were judged based on their professional work, their charitable donations, and their overall integrity. Because of Fan's scandal, she was judged as having very little social responsibility, and it's clear that the Chinese government still has a very unfavorable view of her. Salvaging her overall reputation may not be easy.

Fan ended up owing just over $100 million in back taxes and fines for tax evasion. It's a hefty sum, but she's going to have to pay up — and so will plenty of her colleagues in the industry. After everything she's been through over the past few months, she's probably learned that trying to evade the tax authorities was never even remotely worth the trouble. Some of her fans have undoubtedly forgiven her, while others remain disappointed. Hopefully, she's realized that honesty really is the best policy.