HONG KONG — China’s most internationally known film director, Zhang Yimou, and his wife are likely to be $1.24 million poorer after a government office on Thursday ordered the couple to pay a fine for violating family planning limits by having three children.
A district family planning bureau in Wuxi, a lakeside city in eastern China where Zhang’s wife, Chen Ting, officially resides, announced the 7.49 million renminbi fine for “seriously” violating the rules, the China News Service, a state-run agency, reported. The penalty followed months of speculation in the Chinese news media about how many children Zhang had fathered, why he had apparently escaped the rules that limit most urban couples to one child, and why officials in Wuxi had found it impossible to track down one of the country’s most recognizable faces. (Zhang’s many acclaimed movies include “Raise the Red Lantern,” “Hero,” and “House of Flying Daggers.”)
The officials went to Beijing to try to find the couple and wrote to them more than 10 times, the China News Service said, citing an unnamed family planning official in the city.
“There was never any effective response, and this created some difficulty for investigating and collecting evidence,” the China News Service report said. “When the couple had the three children, they had not carried out marriage registration procedures and did not obtain birth permit documents from the population and family planning authorities.”
Zhang and Chen can appeal the fine. Attempts to contact them through a representative of Zhang drew no response.
In November, the Communist Party leadership endorsed proposals to relax family size restrictions slightly, so that more urban couples can have two children. (The changes would not affect this case.) But Zhang, famed for his ornate dramas, became the focus of a public uproar on the Internet over why quite a few wealthy and well-connected Chinese people had already been able to evade those restrictions and have had more than one child.
Zhang and Chen are unlikely to face serious hardship paying the fine, but poor rural residents can struggle to meet penalties for having more than two children — the number usually tolerated in the countryside. Two dozen Chinese provinces, regions and provincial-level cities have disclosed that they took in a total of 20 billion renminbi (about $3.3 billion) last year in “social support” fines for family planning violations. Other provincial-level governments have refused to reveal how much they took.
Zhang has acknowledged having a daughter from his first marriage. Provincial family planning regulations would usually allow only one more child for his new marriage with Chen. He had two sons and a daughter with Chen before they married in 2011, the China News Service said.
Zhang, 62, began his career directing films in the 1980s, and was later embraced by the Communist Party government as a symbol of homegrown — and loyal — cultural success. He directed the spectacular opening and closing ceremonies for the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing.
Zhang and his wife at first avoided publicly commenting on the controversy. But after officials announced that the couple had violated the rules, the couple expressed contrition, including in interviews with state-run news media.
In late December, Zhang told the official news agency, Xinhua, that he had fathered more than one child to follow family expectations of creating male heirs to carry on the ancestral line.
“Now when I think about it, it really was a huge mistake,” said Zhang, who does not have a reputation for humility. “The brand I’d created for myself with so much painful effort through my work was destroyed in one blow.”
Despite their apologies, Zhang and Chen disputed the officials’ estimates of their past income, which were used to calculate the size of the fine, a propaganda office in Wuxi said in December. But the family planning bureau of Binhu district in Wuxi apparently rejected their claims and handed down the fine, which must be paid in 30 days unless the couple appeals.