Scandal Over Chinese Director's Illegitimate Children Turns Political

Zhang Yimou
Nyay Bhushan

As government authorities investigate claims Zhang Yimou fathered seven children with four women, questions are raised in the media about the state's one-child policy.

HONG KONG – With Chinese officials pledging to probe into reports of director Zhang Yimou flouting the country’s one-child regulations and a growing voice in the media urging for a revamp of the state’s population-control initiatives, what began as a juicy scandal in the entertainment pages has snowballed into something akin to social discontent about elite-only privileges and dated policies.

Three days after Southern Entertainment Weekly ran an explosive expose about Zhang having fathered three children from his unacknowledged marriage with Chen Ting – a report followed a day later with rumors of the director actually having three more offspring with two other women – officials from the Jiangsu province’s Health and Family Planning Commission told People’s Daily Online that investigations will be conducted to see whether Zhang has violated state regulations that stipulated that urban couples can have only one child.

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The spokesperson also said reports about Zhang having to face a 160 million yuan fine are “unsubstantiated” as conclusions are yet to be made about the case. According to calculations made in the article, Zhang and Chen – who was born in Wuxi, a city in Jiangsu – might be liable to a fine of 280,000 yuan for giving birth to three children out of wedlock, assuming the pair has yet to officially register their marriage.

A one-time blacklisted auteur who has transformed himself into the establishment’s most favored filmmaker of his generation – he was charged with staging the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 – Zhang has as yet declined to comment on the reports. But with official media outlets like the People’s Daily and Global Times now running stories on the issue – signaling the establishment taking a stance on someone half-jokingly dubbed by the Chinese media as guoshi, the master artist of the nation.

But the issue has also gradually grown beyond its origins as a show business scandal, with commentators weighing in and using the expose to illustrate the long-running debate about privileges enjoyed by the social elite and also the one-child policy itself.

In another op-ed piece on People’s Daily Online, a writer named Yuan Tiange – possibly an alias – wrote about other celebrities who had given birth to more than one child, such as Zhang’s filmmaker rival Chen Kaige (two sons), Olympian diver-turned-popstar Tian Liang (one daughter and one son) and Lost in Thailand star Wang Baoqiang. (“He’s cleverer as he went abroad to have his second child,” the article said.)

“Although everybody should be equal before the law – which means celebrities and stars do not have the special rights to have more children – but the law also allowed for a payment of fines to give these ‘overbirthed’ children proper legal standing,” the article continued. “This means those rich people who are not worried about paying fines are more or less living outside the state’s birth control policies. How to plug this loophole and not allow the rich to give birth to however many they want, will be a question the government will have to face in terms of [changing] the law and the system.”

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More interestingly, however, is a comment reported in an article on the English-language (and admittedly less demagogic) version of the notoriously conservative official mouthpiece Global Times.

After a few comment from scholars toeing the no-one-is-above-the-law line, the article quoted Yang Zhizhu, an associate professor with China Youth University for Political Sciences, who, according to the report, was dismissed from his job for having a second child, as saying it’s “unfair to fine Zhang even he is proved to have fathered seven children.”

"Without considering his relationships with the four women, I would like to congratulate Zhang. A father who is willing to raise seven kids is rare now," Yang said. "The policy is unreasonable as no child should be abandoned."

The article ended with a brief summary of China's family planning policy “being introduced in the late 1970s to rein in the increasing population.”

“In recent years, more experts have called for a loosening-up of the policy due to a fall in the youth workforce and the low birth rate,” said the piece.

It remains to be seen whether this is actually a coda or the prelude to policy changes under Xi Jinping’s new administration.