When, suddenly and without explanation, Fan Bingbing, China’s most famous actress and its highest-paid celebrity, vanished, in July, conspiracy theories abounded. Had she been abducted? Was she in exile? Or had “the No. 1 beauty under the heavens,” as she is known, been having an affair with the Vice-President, and been forced into hiding? In China, where the movie industry favors fantasies and mysteries, the story of Fan’s disappearance suggested the kind of thriller in which she herself might star. But, last week, after an absence of more than three months, she resurfaced to issue a statement that could have earned her a part in a well-known TV drama series: the coerced public apology.
Fan did not speak on camera, but it was hard to imagine what could have prompted a more lip-quivering performance than the open letter that she published on Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter, where she has sixty-two million followers. After expressing “deep shame and sorrow,” she admitted to years of underreporting her earnings, through the practice of “yin and yang” contracts, in which a smaller contract is disclosed but a larger one is paid to the star. She was ordered to pay a hundred and thirty million dollars in back taxes and penalties. Her actions amounted not only to a personal misstep, she wrote, but to a betrayal of China. “I owe my success to the support from my country and the people. Without the great policies of the [Chinese Communist] Party and the country, without the love of the people, there would be no Fan Bingbing,” she wrote. “I have failed my country. ”
In a nation of runaway economic growth, where tax evasion is rampant among the wealthy, what struck many people was not Fan’s alleged misdeed—that was predictable enough to be banal—but the startling way in which her case was handled. The state has a record of disappearing human-rights activists and political dissidents, whose absences tend to attract little notice in the country. But the apparent detention of China’s top star—the South China Morning Post reported that she had been held in a “holiday resort”—marks a new era that also seems like a return to an older one. For the Chinese who lived through the Cultural Revolution, which lasted from 1966 to 1976, the tone of Fan’s contrition was reminiscent of the degrading self-criticisms that accused counter-revolutionaries were forced to write under penalty of torture or death. During that decade of heedless violence and persecution, show trials and public struggle sessions were tools that the state used to both intimidate the population and, perversely, to discredit accusations of abuses of power. When Fan professed shame for not “safeguarding the interests of my country and our society against my personal interests,” the language could have been copied from the speeches of Mao Zedong—or, for that matter, Xi Jinping—on the importance of social responsibility and patriotic duty.
Born to a humble family in the eastern city of Qingdao, in 1981, Fan grew up in the transformative years of Deng Xiaoping’s “reform and opening” free-market boom, when liberal policies presented cultural and economic opportunities that just a few years earlier the state would have deemed subversive. Vertiginous change quickly followed. The entrepreneurial ethos that Deng championed meant that, in Fan’s case, at least, if you were lucky enough to be born beautiful, worked hard, and cultivated the right patrons, you could ascend to stratospheric heights of fame and fortune. “I don’t need to marry into a wealthy family,” Fan once boasted. “I am my own wealthy family.”
By the time Fan was thirty-three, she was the fourth-highest-paid actress in the world, out-earning Angelina Jolie and Julia Roberts, and she topped Forbes’s China Celebrity List for four years. International brands and Hollywood studios looking to break into the Chinese market flocked to her. She has had roles in the “X-Men” series and in “Iron Man 3,” and will appear in the upcoming war drama “Air Strike,” starring Bruce Willis and Adrien Brody. In China, her ubiquity—she has been a brand ambassador for Louis Vuitton, Cartier, and Mercedes-Benz, among others—was rivalled only by Xi’s. For every gleaming billboard hawking a nationalist slogan below Xi’s airbrushed face there was one of a bejewelled Fan, languidly posing above a luxury-brand logo.
In China, reality has a way of resembling thriller-movie plots, with disparate events playing out like sequels of a common franchise. The day after Fan resurfaced, it was reported that Meng Hongwei, the sixty-four-year-old president of Interpol, and China’s vice-minister of public security, had vanished shortly after arriving in China on a flight from Lyon, France, where Interpol is headquartered. On Sunday, Beijing issued a brief statement that Meng was under investigation. A few hours later, Interpol reported that Meng had resigned as president. Then, on Monday, Chinese authorities announced that he was being detained on charges of bribery and corruption. His wife, Grace, who had made a public appeal for his safety—a rare move in such cases—and maintains his innocence, has not heard from him since last month. She also reported a threat on her life and is now under the protection of the French police, as are the couple’s two seven-year-old sons.
If the trials of past senior officials are any indication, Meng’s fate is already sealed. Under the Chinese legal system, the accused, once in custody, is unlikely to be granted an opportunity to present exculpatory evidence. The conviction rate across the country is more than ninety-nine per cent. Despite hints that Meng’s error may have involved political “willfulness,” we may never know the exact nature of his alleged transgression. The irony is that no one is more familiar with the internal workings of the legal system than Meng, who played a major role in the country’s policing operations, including the repatriation of high-ranking officials suspected of corruption. During the past five years, more than a million and a half officials have been punished as part of Xi’s anti-corruption crackdown. Meng’s failure to retrieve Guo Wengui, the exiled billionaire real-estate tycoon whose criticism of the Chinese government has made him a high-profile enemy of the regime, may have contributed to his downfall.
Taken together, the abrupt, spectacular falls of both Fan and Meng suggest a drastic widening of a dragnet that is primarily about Xi’s consolidation of authority. Since assuming the Presidency, in 2013, he has assiduously preached the supremacy of the Communist Party. Central to “Xi Jinping Thought,” which was enshrined in the Party’s constitution last year, at its annual conference, is the idea that fealty to the Party is no longer a choice but, once again, a duty. As Fan’s confession makes clear, the personal is necessarily political.
Deng Xiaoping’s policies—which were a deliberate correction to the devastation and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution, and which were popularly summarized as “To get rich is glorious”—remade Chinese society in such a way that people aspired to personal gain rather than revolutionary glory. People sought to build their lives around the pursuit of wealth, fame, and worldly sophistication. More troubling for the state, élites, both within the Party and outside it, came to view vast fortunes and international prominence as protections against the Party’s will.
If economic liberalization was the animating principle of Deng’s tenure, what defines Xi’s “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is a political adherence to his vision. His strategy may seem brutal, but it’s hardly illogical. Authoritarianism short-circuits when any single person, no matter how exceptional, is able to extricate himself from political obligation. (The announcement of Meng’s detention referred to the importance of an “absolute loyal political character.”) Other forms of power—outsized wealth, fame, and prestige—present the possibility of success independent of Party patronage, and, most alarming to Xi, a vision of China without the Communist state. The existence of a troublemaker like Guo Wengui is an unforgivable offense, but the possibility that China is rearing a generation of connected, monied individuals who live unbeholden to the Party is an existential terror.
Western analysts have described the arrest of Meng as a “self-inflicted blow” to the Party’s legitimacy; in conducting a secretive investigation, the theory goes, China has hurt its international profile and damaged global good will. But it’s likely that, in Xi’s calculation, a political threat at home is far costlier than a few unflattering op-eds in the international press. His refusal to submit to international norms may even mark a brash attempt to build a new framework, one underwritten by might rather than by the perception of what is right.
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