Chinese authorities are investigating top Chinese actor Zheng Shuang for tax evasion and a sky-high salary exceeding government-approved limits, the Xinhua news agency said Wednesday. This marks the biggest case of suspected celebrity tax fraud since the downfall of A-lister Fan Bingbing.
The probe comes after screenshots emerged allegedly indicating that she was paid $24.6 million (160 million RMB) for 77 days of filming — $320,000 a day — for her role in the upcoming 50-episode series “A Chinese Ghost Story.” The project is backed by Tencent and the troubled but still leading production company Beijing Culture, among other firms.
The incredible sum would make Zheng, 29, one of the world’s highest paid actresses, equating to more than Meryl Streep earned in all of 2020. It’s a pay-out that’s more than double what Gal Gadot earned for “Wonder Woman 1984” ($10 million) or Margot Robbie for “Birds of Prey” ($9-10 million), and more than five times what Joaquin Phoenix was paid for his Oscar-winning performance in “Joker” ($4.5 million), as reported by Variety.
Last year, the world’s top three highest paid actresses were Sofia Vergara, who made $43 million, Angelina Jolie ($35.5 million), and Gal Gadot ($31.5 million), according to Forbes.
The offending screenshots appeared in a video posted to Weibo by her ex-partner, the celebrity producer Zhang Heng. The pair are already notorious for another viral scandal in January after Zhang accused Zheng of abandoning him and their two children born in the U.S. via surrogate mothers, unwilling amidst a breakup to go through the legal processes that would allow them to leave the States and re-enter China. The issue sparked a nationwide debate over the practice of surrogacy, which is illegal in China.
This time, Zhang’s screenshots appeared to reveal discussions between the couple and her parents about the salary negotiations. She was initially offered $23.1 million (RMB150 million) for the job, but tried to bargain up to $27.8 million (RMB180 million).
He also said that she had abandoned her pet dog after it got sick and she didn’t want to pay the $300 treatment fee.
China’s top media regulatory body decreed in 2018 that most actors should receive salaries equivalent to no more than 40% of production costs for film and TV work, and that lead actors could be paid a maximum of 70% of the total budget. A later statement from production firms and streamers declared that actors should not be paid more than $7.7 million (RMB50 million) per production — less than a third of Zheng’s alleged haul.
She is now under investigation by the Shanghai Municipal Tax Bureau and the Beijing Municipal Radio and TV Bureau, which is also looking anew into the broader issue of controlling actor salaries.
Zhang alleged that his former partner was guilty of using “yin-yang” contracts — duplicate contracts where a lower sum is reported on the one sent to the tax bureau and the rest of the payment appears on another.
Zheng signed one contract indicating her pay would be just under the threshold at $7.3 million (RMB48 million), and another sending the rest of the fee to a company that appears to be connected to her mother, he said.
In 2018, Fan Bingbing was found guilty of using the same system of “yin-yang” contracts. She was fined more than $136 million (RMB883 million) in penalties and back taxes and disappeared from public view for months.
Even after groveling apologies, a proper comeback for the star appears unlikely, given Beijing’s renewed focus on the importance of “celebrity morality” and calls for lifetime bans for entertainers found breaking the law. Fan’s completed projects were never released save one, which went straight to streaming and edited her out of every shot.
Government data last year estimated that 600 million people in China earn a monthly income of $154 (RMB1,000). Zheng would make their annual salary of RMB12,000 ($1,851) in three minutes, the South China Morning Post pointed out.
The news of her potential haul sparked enormous criticism and widespread discussion income disparity and inequality on the Chinese web.
One social media user griped that with an ordinary monthly salary of $770 (RMB5,000), someone would have to start earning money some 2,000 years ago during the Eastern Han Dynasty to match Zheng’s fee.