C&B Notes

China “Detains” Its National Sweetheart

Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power and nominal campaign against corruption continues to change the rules in China, with a recent high-profile example occurring in the Chinese film industry.  The country’s most famous actress, Fan Bingbing, disappeared for six months as part of a tax and industry structure crackdown.  What is portrayed as rooting out corruption is likely a cover for stamping out dissent and requiring obedience to the state.

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.

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In March 2018, President Xi established the National Supervision Commission, granting it sweeping powers to investigate corruption and tax evasion. Suspects could now be legally kidnapped, interrogated, and held for as long as six months.  That same month, he also gave the Central Publicity Department, which heads up propaganda efforts, the authority to regulate the film industry.  The only other time film was put under the propaganda ministry, according to industry insiders, was during the Cultural Revolution.)  Films that had passed the censors years ago have now been retroactively banned.  “That liminal space where you can get away with stuff, that’s gone,” said Michael Berry, a professor of contemporary Chinese culture at U.C.L.A.

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.”

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Was anyone angry?  “If we get angry, we are done,” explained the actor’s agent, who was the only one not drinking with abandon.  “You can’t make movies anymore.  We have just the one government.”  People, he added, were “not mad, but confused.”  The informal rules that had governed the industry for decades were changing, which was unnerving.  Even worse, no one seemed to know what the new rules were.  Meanwhile, the government was “taking money from your pocket.”  But what could you do?

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Since her release last October, Fan has consciously kept a low profile.  (She and her agency declined to speak with VANITY FAIR for this story.)  Her first post on social media after her public apology was an overt display of fealty to the Chinese government.  On November 17, when a director made a pro-Taiwan comment at the Golden Horse Awards, Fan shared a pro-China post from the Communist youth league.  “China,” she said, “cannot miss out on any inch.”

Her collaborators followed suit.  On November 20, Feng Xiaogang, the director of the two Cell Phone movies, who was reported to have been fined $288 million, announced that his next film would be about the 70th anniversary of the founding of the party.  Creative Artists Agency China, which represents Fan, was rumored to have lost more than half of its income with the scandal, and its agents have been scrambling to sign new talent.  One analyst predicts that a third of the Chinese film industry will go out of business in the coming years, leaving fewer than 1,000 production companies standing.  Not since the Cultural Revolution have artists in China been as wary of the state, and as aware of the necessity of appeasing it.

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