Nobody's pointing a finger at you, Christian Bale, but many are at your director. Scene from Zhang Yimou's "Flowers of War." Source: Edko Films via Bloomberg
Nobody's pointing a finger at you, Christian Bale, but many are at your director. Scene from Zhang Yimou's "Flowers of War." Source: Edko Films via Bloomberg

What’s a superstar Chinese filmmaker's baby worth to the Chinese government? If you’re Zhang Yimou, China’s most famous movie director, and the maestro behind the 2008 Beijing Olympic opening ceremonies, the answer appears to be somewhere in the range of $383,000.

That, at least, is the conclusion of one prominent Beijing-based lawyer with expertise in the matter of calculating fines against Chinese citizens who violate China’s one-child population policies. Though China’s population control system is now due for limited reform in 2014 -- second children will be allowed if one parent is an only child -- the good news shouldn’t overshadow the harsh and often corrupt means by which it will continue to be enforced against families who have too many children even under the new rules. Real reform will require addressing those issues.

Zhang Yimou is an unlikely and mostly unsympathetic symbol of the capricious cruelty of China’s family planning regime. The one-time bad boy of Chinese cinema, director of elegaic paeans to China’s rural life has, over time, transformed himself into the Communist Party’s favorite auteur, and paramour to his leading ladies. Along the way, he fathered one daughter -- legally -- by his first wife and (rumors had it) as many as six more children by as many as four other women.

The means by which China’s family planning authorities deal with extra-legal pregnancies can be brutal, including forced abortions (a penalty imposed disproportionately on the poor and powerless -- not the girlfriends and wives of famous film directors). However, for those parents who manage to give birth to extra-legal children, the legal gantlet isn’t over. Rather, they’re subject to a fine, known as a "social subsistence fee," that -- theoretically, at least -- covers the costs of a child’s share of public social resources.

Those fines vary by province and municipality, but are generally levied on the basis of income. So, for Zhang, a millionaire film director, the cost will be steep. For poorer families, fines don’t total nearly as much, but they can be far more ruinous. In August, for example, I visited Yangchun, a farm town in the mountains of Fujian Province where the fine was around $819 per extra-legal child -- a considerable burden that, I was told, exceeds the average annual income of most villagers (rural per capita income for all of China was around $1,300 in 2012).

Family planning fines add up. In 2012, for example, 17 Chinese provinces (out of 34 province-level government units) reported collecting approximately $2.7 billion in family planning fees. Those numbers, though almost certainly under-reported, represent a substantial chunk of revenue for at least some local governments. For example, Jiangxi, a relatively poor province, receives around 1.65 percent of its total revenue from such fines. According to Xinhua, the state newswire, some of the poorer local governments in Jiangxi receive almost all of their revenue from the fines. "In order to collect as much in fees as possible,” the wire quoted one anonymous official as saying. “Many township officials even hope more people will violate the policy."

The hunger for family planning fines creates a twisted incentive to hunt down extra-legal children -- or to invent them. In September, China’s National Audit Office revealed that between 2009 and 2012, 45 municipalities in nine provinces had levied $260 million in fines in contravention of the family planning rules, including fines based on inaccurate reports. Unsurprisingly perhaps, family planning officials in Zhangzhou, Fujian Province, now offer rewards to citizens who turn in wealthy violators of China’s family planning policies. It’s a win-win deal for everyone -- except the parents.

In any case, it’s not clear why the Family Planning Commission in Wuxi, home to the mother of Zhang Yimou’s three extra-legal children, decided in May 2013 to open an investigation into the famous, well-connected director’s family. Perhaps they wanted to show that Wuxi’s family planning policies didn't just target the poor and powerless. Or perhaps they really just wanted to get their hands on what would be a considerable fine.

Whatever the reason, on Dec. 1, after months of hounding in the press, Zhang and his wife issued a letter admitting that they had two sons and a daughter. On Sunday, nearly a month later, Zhang sat down for a televised interview with the state-owned Xinhua news wire, and confessed. “I sincerely apologize for extra births to all of you,” the morose-faced auteur said, his eyes avoiding the camera. “I indeed did wrong.”

This is good news for the enforcers of China’s family planning laws and their pocketbooks. After all, if Zhang Yimou can be fined for his extra kids, then there’s no reason to fear having to answer for how the family planning laws are enforced against the less powerful. But it’s bad news for China, which finds itself ever more burdened with a family planning policy driven by the greed of local government officials. Real reform of the one-child policy would address that issue, first.