Fan Bingbing is one of China’s biggest movie stars, if not the biggest, with her combo of high glamor and girl-next-door accessibility. Everyone knows her, everyone loves her. And so everyone was worried when, in August of last year, she just … disappeared. No public appearances. No social media activity. For almost six weeks.
Then, on October 3, Fan reappeared as suddenly as she had vanished. According to the South China Morning Post, she had been held under a form of detention known as “residential surveillance,” at a holiday resort in a suburb of Jiangsu. The system was instituted in 2012, under President Xi Jinping, making it legal for the Chinese secret police to detain anyone charged with endangering state security or committing corruption and hold them at an undisclosed location for up to six months without access to lawyers or family members. Sources close to Fan told me that she had been picked up by plainclothes police. While under detention, she was forbidden to make public statements or use her phone. She wasn’t given a pen or paper to write with, nor allowed any privacy, even when taking showers.
The problem? Making too much money, and not paying enough in taxes. As May Jeong explains in her Vanity Fair story about Bingbing’s brush with state security, her behavior was par for the course in the Chinese film industry and her notoriety made her the perfect target for a government that wanted to deliver a powerful message, fast: things aren’t going to be like this anymore, and no one’s too popular to get caught.
Under Xi’s crackdown, tens of thousands of people have disappeared into the maw of the police state. An eminent TV news anchor was taken away hours before going on air. A retired professor with views critical of the government was dragged away during a live interview on Voice of America. A billionaire was abducted from his private quarters in the Four Seasons in Hong Kong. Other high-profile disappearances include Interpol president Meng Hongwei in September, photojournalist Lu Guang in November, two Canadians who went missing in December, as well as the writer Yang Hengjun, who went missing in January. “The message being sent out is that nobody is too tall, too big, too famous, too pretty, too whatever,” said Steve Tsang, who runs the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London.
Taken together, Xi’s moves represent a dramatic rollback of the economic reforms and relative freedom that enabled the film industry to flourish in the time before his reign. “Deng Xiaoping kept everyone together by promising to make them rich,” said Nicholas Bequelin, the East Asia director of Amnesty International. “What keeps things together under Xi is fear. Fear of the system, where no matter how high you are, from one day to the next you can disappear.”