Over the course of his career, Zhang Yimou has experienced mixed relations with the Chinese leadership. The director saw some of his early films banned from local screens. But by 2008 Zhang was so favoured by Beijing that he was asked to orchestrate the opening and closing ceremonies of the Olympics. His latest film The Flowers of War – which dramatised Japanese savagery during the Rape of Nanking – had no difficulty getting onto Chinese screens.
But it now appears that China’s “favourite artistic son,” as the Financial Times designated Zhang back in 2009, is once again back in Beijing’s bad books.
In fact, the director is now facing a government investigation following reports that he has violated the country’s family planning policies by having seven children with different women.
The controversy started last Monday when Southern Entertainment Weekly published an article that accused the filmmaker and his wife Chen Ting of ignoring the one-child policy by having two sons and a daughter before the two married in 2011. Previously Zhang had a daughter with his first wife, Xiao Hua, whom he divorced after starting a relationship with the actress Gong Li.
Information Times then followed up on this week’s revelations, claiming that Zhang had fathered three more children with two other women. The report did not disclose the identities of the mothers but claims that current wife Chen had revealed their existence during conversations in which she described how she had won Zhang’s affections over her love rivals.
The People’s Daily says local government officials in Wuxi, Chen’s hometown, are now investigating reports that Zhang has “at least seven children”. The article goes on to say that if the filmmaker did violate the family planning laws, he could be fined as much as Rmb160 million ($26 million) in financial penalties (fines are calculated according to the offender’s income).
The reports unleashed serious vitriol online. Chinese netizens are especially sensitive about the ability of the rich or well-connected to ignore the one-child policy while ordinary folk are forced to obey the law.
“Zhang Yimou, shame on you! The more famous you are, the more responsibility you have to be a law-abiding citizen, rather than somebody who sets an example by breaking the law,” sociologist Li Yinhe wrote on Caijing Magazine’s website. “If you really love children, you can adopt them, like Brad Pitt.”
“China’s family planning policy is just a trifle to the rich and to celebrities,” another netizen fumed. “The fine is just a small portion of their income, but ordinary people face abortions, just because they cannot afford fines.”
The family planning laws generally restrict families to one child, and fines are levied for additional children. On average, Rmb28 billion is collected in financial penalties from enforcing the one-child policy, official figures show.
There are exceptions to the rule. Rural families whose first child is a girl may have a second child, as can married couples who are both themselves only children. Ethnic minorities are also exempt. But people giving birth are required to have the requisite permits, and these are available only to married couples. In effect, this makes out-of-wedlock births illegal too.
Critics of the one-child rules warn that it has led to forced abortions and gender imbalance. Moreover, there is a growing debate that birth rates need to rise in China for economic purposes and that it no longer makes sense to continue the policy. In March the National Population and Family Planning Commission – which has overseen the one-child policy for more than three decades – was merged into the national economic planner, the NDRC. That led some to speculate that Beijing is putting more focus on demographics and that reform of the one-child laws could be close.
Zhang Xin, chief executive at property developer SOHO China, also reckons it’s only a matter of time before the one-child policy is changed. As she wrote on her widely followed weibo: “Soon the one-child policy will come to a natural end. With the single-child generation maturing, they will soon have children of their own. And the policy dictates that if the couple are both single children, they are eligible to have more than one offspring. So immediately, the ‘one-child policy’ automatically becomes a ‘two-child policy’. But of course, to have seven children, that’s…”
Meanwhile Zhang Yimou has not made any comment in response to the allegations about his own, larger brood.
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