Just how many children has China’s most famous film director fathered?

That’s the question officials in charge of enforcing China’s notorious one-child family planning policy in the city of Wuxi claim to have been trying to answer since May, when rumors (dutifully reported in Chinese and international news media) emerged that Zhang Yimou may have violated the country’s laws by fathering seven children.

Yet, according to a widely circulated Nov. 19 story issued by Xinhua, China’s state-owned news wire, Wuxi’s Health and Family Planning Commission has been stumped in its efforts to locate the impresario responsible for -- among other spectacles -- the opening ceremonies of the Beijing 2008 Olympics. He simply can’t be found -- or so they claim.

Wuxi’s bureaucrats are charged with this hunt because Zhang's wife is a city resident. Why they chose last week to announce that they’ve come up cold is unclear, but more likely than not it was related to a mid-November announcement that Xi Jinping’s government intends to relax the three-decade-old policy to allow for more couples to have second children (it probably doesn’t hurt, either, that Zhang -- if found guilty -- would owe millions of dollars in fines). It’s a long-anticipated change, and one that’s been largely justified in economic terms that emphasize the negative consequences of China’s rapidly aging population.

But the change is also a political act that seeks to remedy, at least in part, a growing recognition in Chinese society that the wealthy and powerful are able to skirt the law and have multiple children, while common Chinese are punished -- often severely -- for attempting the same. Thus, Zhang, once a renegade director of emotionally and socially subtle films, has become the inadvertent symbol of wealthy privilege protected by political power in a China increasingly divided by class.

Indeed, only the most gullible of Chinese would believe the Wuxi Health and Family Planning Commission’s claim that they’ve been trying to find Zhang. In recent weeks, the director has been busy with a theatrical production in Beijing (and making press appearances in the process), and making and promoting a new film in Hong Kong.

These appearances have not gone unnoticed by China’s press. “Unless all of Zhang’s colleagues are accomplices he shouldn’t be hard to find,” noted He Long, in the independent Guangzhou-based Yangcheng Evening News last Thursday. “This raises the question of whether or not the commission is actually determined to find Zhang Yimou.”

After all, China’s local family planning agencies have proven to be highly efficient in hunting down and punishing violators of regulations limiting most Chinese couples to a single child -- investigations that have not gone unnoticed by regular Chinese and the state-owned news outlets that, theoretically, are supposed to support the family planning policies. Take, for example, a scathing op-ed by Ni Henghu at Qianlong, a news portal owned and operated by Beijing’s Municipal Propaganda Community, on Nov. 20, one day after Xinhua’s story on the Wuxi officials' fruitless search for Zhang:

Zhang Yimou is lucky that the Wuxi Health and Family Planning Commission could not find him. Ordinary people are not so lucky when the Health and Family Planning Commission goes looking for them. After they are found, the consequences are often serious. Remember October 24th, 2011 at 11:00, when Fujian Province’s Family Planning officials arrested people in Shenzhen and forced sterilizations upon them, and with no impact on the officials’ performance records.

This outrage is only unusual for the fact that it was published by a prominent official news site. What makes it politically fraught is the growing public sense that there’s a tacit childbearing privilege that accrues to wealth and power. Thus, a farmer with too many children risks being sterilized, while a celebrity director known to fancy his actresses doesn’t.

In Xi Jinping’s China, eliminating these inequalities -- or, at least, the perception that they’re tolerated -- is a priority, and one that the country’s news media embrace wholeheartedly and earnestly. “Celebrities should have no privileges before national policy and law,” wrote Shi Yanping in the state-owned Southeast Business Daily. “In a nation ruled by law, Zhang Yimou’s hiding is undoubtedly an oversight or even defiance towards the law.” Later, Shi concludes: “A celebrity is always sheltered by influential officials.”

The influential officials in this case are widely presumed to be Wuxi’s family planning bureaucrats (or whomever is controlling them). Remarkably, China’s state-owned media is not only being allowed to criticize them, but to engage in outright mockery of their claims. This reached a peak on Monday, when the Oriental Guardian newspaper in Nanjing (120 miles from Wuxi) published a full-page missing-person ad for Zhang that was subsequently circulated across Chinese media outlets.

It wasn’t the first such stunt, either. Last Wednesday, the state-owned Ningbo Daily newspaper used its Sina Weibo microblogging account to post a missing person notice of its own (as translated by the New York Times):

Zhang Yimou, well-known Chinese film director, missing for almost 6 months despite ‘close scrutiny’ of Wuxi family planning officials, despite the fact that they have made every possible effort to find Zhang Yimou, even dispatching a team to Beijing, but in the end: Still! No! Word!

The ad concludes with a phone number for the Wuxi Health and Family Planning Commission, in case anyone happens to see the director.

For China’s newspaper editorialists, Zhang provides a high-profile opportunity to take aim at official privilege without having to point fingers at actual officials (thus possibly incurring the political costs of criticizing a politically powerful figure). At the same time, the criticism lends tacit support for President Xi’s efforts to reform China’s family planning rules.

Yet in the end, it fails at the most politically important task: Convincing China’s potential parents that they’ll enjoy the same rights, regardless of whether they’re rich or poor. For that to change, President Xi will have to reform much more than just China’s family planning system.

(Adam Minter, the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog, is the author of “Junkyard Planet,” a book on the global recycling industry that will be published in November.)

To contact the author of this article: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com.

To contact the editor responsible for this article: Tobin Harshaw at tharshaw@bloomberg.net