BEIJING (AP) -- Authorities are investigating whether one of China's top film directors fathered seven children in violation of the country's strict family planning laws, state media and a local official said Thursday.
Reports circulated online this week that Zhang Yimou, director of "The Flowers of War" starring Christian Bale and also known as the architect of the opening ceremony for the Beijing Olympics, has seven children from his two marriages and from relationships with two other women.
"We are trying to confirm the online rumors," said a woman at the general office of Wuxi city's family planning committee, a department under the municipal government. The woman, who declined to identify herself as is customary among Chinese officials, said she couldn't reveal any other information until authorities had finished investigating.
Zhang, 61, reportedly could face a fine of up to 160 million yuan ($26 million), said the People's Daily newspaper, the Communist Party mouthpiece. People caught breaking China's family planning policy must pay a "social compensation fee" based on their annual income.
Users of China's lively social media lined up to criticize Zhang and drew distinctions between how the elite and ordinary people are treated.
"However many children a person has is their basic right, but in a twisted society, basic rights have become a privilege," Beijing resident Liu Weiling, who works for a media company, wrote on Sina Weibo.
"Why is China unable to win the world's respect?" asked author Christopher Jing. "Rich people with groups of mistresses, old celebrities changing wives, Zhang Yimou getting so many privileges. Four women and seven kids, if this was an ordinary person they would have killed you or fined you an unreasonable amount of money, but he is fine ... he is no better than ordinary people, such an unfair world will never gain respect."
Zhang's credits also include "A Simple Noodle Story," an adaptation of the Coen brothers' 1984 movie "Blood Simple," and "Under the Hawthorn Tree," a love story set in China's decade-long, ultra-leftist Cultural Revolution.
Zhang's Los Angeles-based agent didn't immediately respond to a request for comment.
Earlier Thursday, the website of the People's Daily had quoted an unnamed official from Wuxi family planning authority in eastern Jiangsu province as saying they had begun investigating the reports. It said Zhang's second wife, former actress Chen Ting, was from Wuxi.
Known to many as China's one-child policy, the rules limit most urban couples to one child and allow two children for rural families if their firstborn is a girl. The government introduced the policy in 1979 as a temporary measure to curb a surging population, but it is still in place despite being reviled by many citizens.
Associated Press researchers Flora Ji and Yu Bing contributed to this report.