Fan Bingbing, one of China’s most prominent actresses, resurfaced on Wednesday after disappearing for almost five months, and to the great relief of Fan’s fans, her dramatic return to the spotlight was not set in a jail cell.

But there was no such relief for the charismatic Fan from the ongoing public dressing-down by state media for her tax swindles or the elaborate “yin-yang” contracts – double contracts with different payments she signed for the same show – or moonlighting to skirt tax obligations.

Fan, 37, has re-emerged as a supplicant willing to accept whatever China’s politicians and tax watchdogs want to hand down to her, and it appears that the penalty is just a rap on the knuckles: she only has to pay a punitive fine of 884 million yuan (US$128 million) – trivial compared with her net worth – and she can then walk free.

Fan started her career by playing an ingenue in a costume drama featuring Qing Dynasty intrigues and royal-family reunions back in 1997. The TV series became a sensational hit across the Greater China region and shot her to stardom. Fan appeared on the cover of the February 2017 issue of Time magazine for its lead story “How China aims to take over Hollywood.”

She raked in some $21 million in her heyday in 2015, earning her a spot on the list of the best-paid actresses compiled by Forbes, the only entrant from Asia.

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Fan Bingbing was idolized as a symbol of China’s soft power and rising pop-culture heft. Photo: Weibo

Presumably, many in China’s flashy show business were spooked by Fan’s disappearance in June, as the “yin-yang” practice was so widespread in the trade.

The prevailing worry was that if even the “head girl” of the nation’s entertainment sector, who once appeared in the 2014 Hollywood blockbuster X-Men: Days of Future Past, could vanish, then this could happen to anyone else.

Fan’s own letter of confession posted on her Weibo account this week, in which she penitently reflected on her tax dodges and bon vivant persona, has not stopped the rumors from swirling.

China’s cyberspace is still abuzz with chatter about how Fan fell afoul of the tax authority and crime busters, after former China Central Television talking head Cui Yongyuan blew the whistle on Fan in May in retaliation for her taking the leading role again in a new installment of a movie series that insinuated Cui was a skirt-chaser.

Former China Central TV host Cui Yongyuan has singlehandedly started a storm targeting celebrities who were accused of dodging taxes. Photo: CCTV
Former China Central TV host Cui Yongyuan has singlehandedly started a storm targeting celebrities who were accused of dodging taxes. Photo: CCTV

Fan, and the movie’s director Feng Xiaogang, once said Cui knew nothing about humor and was just too melodramatic.

Furthermore, talk about how Fan was nabbed was as suspenseful as many of her movies.

A panicked Fan was said to have sought advice from a renowned fengshui master, shelling out some 2 million yuan as an honorarium and consultancy fee, not too long after Cui started to dig up dirt on her tax issues.

She was hunted down right inside the fengshui master’s cavernous office atop a luxury shopping mall in Nanjing, capital of eastern China’s Jiangsu province, by police officers from Beijing who had been tailing her for weeks, according to a reporter with the Beijing-based Economic Observer who was familiar with the matter.

As the Beijing and Nanjing authorities remained mum throughout, the rumor mill went into overdrive, claiming that a hooded Fan, together with the fengshui master and a middleman, was bundled into a police vehicle waiting in the underground parking lot. The police operation was well choreographed and all footage of the office building was carefully obliterated.

The plot thickened when others hinted that Fan was driven all the way back to Beijing for interrogation and that was why she was not seen for so many months.

But a spokesman with the Beijing police denied their involvement when contacted by the Hong Kong-based Ming Pao Daily on Thursday.

He told the newspaper that investigation of suspected tax dodgers fell entirely into the hands of the State Administration of Taxation after an amendment was made to criminal law.

Xinhua’s report also suggested that Fan was fined as a first offender and she remained cooperative throughout the investigation and thus her case had no criminal element.

Fan’s fall from grace is also seen as proof of Beijing’s displeasure at the ensemble of what some state papers call “vainglorious prima donnas” who elude social responsibilities while striking gold.

China’s movie industry now also finds itself at the odds with the Communist Party’s doctrine as a more despotic top leadership wants to rein it in as a means of ideological remolding.

Read more: Payment accusations prove taxing for Chinese show business

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