Authorities in the eastern Chinese city of Wuxi say they are investigating top Chinese film director Zhang Yimou, who has allegedly fathered seven children, for potential violation of the country's draconian one-child policy, according to official media.
"A team has been dispatched to deal with the case, and a report will be released to the public as soon as possible," the English-language China Daily newspaper quoted a Wuxi family planning official as saying.
The Communist Party's own People's Daily reported recent online claims that Zhang has seven children, meaning the director behind "Hero," "The House of Flying Daggers," and the 2008 Beijing Olympics opening ceremony, could face up to 160 million yuan (U.S.$26 million) in fines.
Under current family planning rules, urban families are limited to one child, while rural families are allowed to have a second child if the first is a girl, the China Daily said.
The paper quoted residents of Wuxi, home to Zhang's second wife, Chen Ting, as saying that the director was well known to have three children with her, all of whom attend an expensive downtown kindergarten.
The accusations have already sparked widespread anger online, as Zhang isn't the first privileged Chinese person to have exceeded the quota.
"Zhang Yimou has the highest possible connections," Shanxi-based independent writer Du Guangda said in an interview on Friday.
"He is under the patronage of Jiang Zemin; his film "Hero" was made in his honor, and it basically justifies Jiang Zemin's crackdown on the Falun Gong."
"If a cultural figure has such powerful backing, no one would dare touch him. The local family planning authorities know that they can't interfere with Zhang Yimou," Du said.
Zhang isn't the first Chinese celebrity to have been quietly allowed to get away with more than their allotted share of children.
International basketball player Yao Ming, pop star and movie actress Faye Wong, movie director Chen Kaige, and many others have at least two children.
Last year, Olympic diving gold medalist Tian Liang resigned from an official post after it emerged that he had a second child in Hong Kong.
Ties to the elite
Du said such celebrities, while not government officials, still have close ties with China's political elite.
"They rely on the bureaucratic system for many of their vested interests," he said. "It's the officials who have to give the green light to many aspects of what they do."
However, netizens pointed out that it's not just celebrities who are allowed to escape regulation by the family planning bureaus across the country.
Many of China's political and financial elite can afford to pay the fines necessary to have large numbers of children, while people without money or connections like Shaanxi-based Feng Jianmei are routinely forced to terminate even very late-term pregnancies.
After a graphic photo of Feng and her dead baby posted online went viral in 2012, the government launched an investigation and had officials, who had demanded a 40,000 yuan (U.S. $6,440) fine from Feng, apologize to her.
Despite official investigation into and apologies over Feng's case, experts say forced abortions have been the norm for decades under China's draconian one-child policy.
China collects 28 billion yuan (U.S. $4.4 billion) a year in fines and charges from enforcing the one-child policy, official figures show.
According to reports surfacing online this week, Zhang is alleged to have fathered seven children with four different women, earning him the nickname "the Gourd Dolls' Daddy," in a reference to a popular children's cartoon of seven fighting brothers.
Netizens estimate, if the reports are true, that Zhang could face fines of 160 million yuan (U.S.$26 million) in family planning fines.
Independent filmmaker Cui Zien said the uproar over Zhang's children has once more highlighted huge social inequalities in China.
"Of course it's unfair," Cui said. "If they only target the lowest sections of society, then it shows up the entire family planning policy as a sham."
"The rich and powerful are held together by two forces: money and power," he said. "This is a phenomenon seen in dictatorial regimes."
Reported by Xin Lin for RFA's Mandarin Service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.