It’s been almost 80 days since actress Fan Bingbing disappeared.
The 36-year-old star is one of China’s most famous faces and since making her debut in 2001, she’s starred in numerous Chinese-made films – clocking up eight big screen appearance in 2007 alone – and topped Forbes’ China Celebrity 100 list for four years running.
Her starpower extends far beyond her home country and in 2014, Bingbing featured in ‘X:Men Days Of Future Past’ alongside Hollywood heavyweights including Hugh Jackman, Jennifer Lawrence and Halle Berry.
Her 2016 hit ‘I Am Madame Bovary’ won awards at film festivals worldwide and she’s wowed the fashion crowd on red carpets at Cannes Film Festival, Paris Fashion Week and Valentino events. In 2017, she was one of the attendees at TIME’s annual Most Influential People In The World gala.
In short: Fan Bingbing is a very big deal.
So how – and why – does a star like this vanish without a trace?
Bingbing’s last public appearance saw her visit a children’s hospital in early July, with pictures of the visit posted online on 3 July.
In the 20 days that followed, she was not seen in public but continued to be active on Weibo, China’s main social-networking site, where she has more than 62m followers (Twitter and Instagram are banned in the country).
Up until 23 July, Bingbing continued to “like” posts, but since then… nothing.
As well as going silent on social media, Bingbing – one of China’s most recognisable and highly-paid stars – has not been spotted out and about once.
It’s not just the woman herself who is missing either, as billboard posters and advertisements featuring her have vanished from China’s major cities. Rui Ma is a tech investor who lives in San Francisco and travels to China frequently. So far this month, she’s been to Beijing, Shanghai, Chengdu, Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hangzhou, seeing “no trace” of Bingbing anywhere.
“Before this, she was super popular,” Ma told HuffPost UK. “ She was the number one star by far, in terms of endorsements.
“She had a very high profile relationship with another actor [Li Chen], so think Brangelina but even more famous, because there are less ‘A-list’ celebs in China. She used to be everywhere.”
As many Twitter users have pointed out, this is the Chinese equivalent of Taylor Swift or Kim Kardashian suddenly being unaccounted for. Both of these megastars have laid low at differing points in their careers, but even while purposefully trying to stay out of the public eye, neither have managed to completely vanish.
Take Kardashian, who went into hiding after her Paris robbery. While she wasn’t seen in the days that followed, her movements could be determined by watching those of loved ones and endless paparazzi shots of her husband Kanye West and mother Kris Jenner entering a New York building made it clear she had remained holed up there. Days later, Kim emerged – with a cap pulled low and hood up – to take a private jet back to LA.
The Bingbing situation is different. For a start, a 2017 clampdown on paparazzi seems to mean China is no longer crawling with photographers ready to capture an A-lister’s every move.
When it comes to loved ones, Bingbing’s boyfriend, Li Chen, also hasn’t seen in public since July. Her brother, popstar Fan Cheng Cheng, ramped up speculation over what’s happened at his latest appearance, by bursting into tears and saying he wished he could protect his family.
Understandably, the rumour mill has gone into overdrive. But what counts as a rumour? And what might actually be true? This is where the lines start to blur.
Just days before her final public appearance, Bingbing was the subject of a national scandal, when a retired TV host, Cui Yongyuan, claimed the actress had been evading tax by using “yin and yang contracts”.
The practice sees an individual submit one statement of earnings – with a lower wage payment listed on it – to the government, while a second includes the real sum received.
Yongyuan didn’t name Bingbing, but it was clear the actress was the target of his accusation and, as the New Yorker reports, the State Administration of Taxation then announced an inquiry into the entertainment industry.
“If violations of tax laws and regulations are found, they will be handled in strict accordance with the law,” they said.
Before going quiet, Bingbing vehemently denied the accusation via her representative and no charges have been announced.
But earlier this week, the Chinese government released its annual report on how “socially responsibly” homegrown celebrities are. A celebrity needs 60% to “pass” the test, which only nine managed. Bingbing scored 0%, which is perhaps an indicator of her current standing, as far as the authorities are concerned.
The report’s publication fuelled speculation on whether Bingbing had secretly been arrested and this line of thinking was bolstered by the fact Securities Daily – one of China’s smaller state-run outlets – ran a story on her “arrest”, but just hours later, they deleted it from their website.
If she has been arrested, there’s been no formal announcement from the government or comment from Bingbing’s representatives (attempts to reach them for this article proved unsuccessful).
A photograph purporting to show Bingbing with two officials caused commotion online, but was later proven to be the work of Photoshop.
Another popular theory is that Bingbing has escaped to the US and is seeking asylum, and Hong Kong publication Apple Day published a story alleging this was the case in early September.
Their article also claimed Bingbing had done so on the advice of world-famous martial arts expert Jackie Chan – who has since labelled the whole thing “nonsense”.
The practice of “disappearing” is not new to China, and in the past, politicians and businesspeople have mysteriously done so, with a 2016 report from CNBC charting the CEOs who had. But all of the executives listed in that article did so for far shorter times and weren’t, y’know, global celebrities.
Bingbing has finished filming ‘Cellphone 2’ and her next project is set to be ‘355’, a spy film produced by Jessica Chastain.
In May, Bingbing joined her castmates – Penélope Cruz, Marion Cotillard, Lupita Nyong’o to promote at Cannes Film Festival, where a bidding war over the China distribution rights soon broke out.
Variety noted that Bingbing’s casting gave the movie “significant appeal” to investors, and one financier was quoted as saying: “This could be a really big film for China, and the new companies are offering so much money.
“One of them is going to end up winning and paying too much for it.”
The film is in production and when contacted by HuffPost UK, representatives for Chastain and Simon Kinberg, who will direct ’355′, confirmed that the script is currently being written.
But despite being asked twice, neither set of reps answered the question of whether Bingbing is still set to be part of the cast.