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When the crowd bays for blood

By Raymond Zhou | China Daily Africa | Updated: 2014-01-17 09:30

When the crowd bays for blood

China's most eminent filmmaker has become the target of a lynch mob carrying the banner of equality

Renowned filmmaker Zhang Yimou has found himself in deep water. Not only has he been fined 7.48 million yuan ($1.24 million; 907,000 euros) for violating the family planning policy, but many Chinese want even harsher punishment. The tidal wave of malignancy as displayed online is nothing short of unsettling. It's like a virtual lynching.

Zhang has a daughter with his first wife and he bore three more children with his current wife, all in the new millennium. They did not officially tie the knot until recently, which means none of the three children were legally permitted to come into this world. Had they been registered for marriage in the first place, the first child could have been legally allowed.

The public was suspicious that Zhang used his official connections to obtain the special privilege. But it turned out the children were not registered until in recent years. Without official registration, they could not have gained any official status or benefits. Theoretically they did not exist in the tally of the nation's population. Zhang rarely appeared in public with his family, and when his children got close to him, he had to run away, pretending not to know them.

It is heartbreaking to learn of these details. As a father, I know first-hand how much he would want to hold his children, both in private and in public, as a proud parent. To put on a childless facade to avoid public scourge is simply too high a price. If I were Zhang, I would have paid the penalty and made the children legal as soon as they were born.

But his apprehensions were borne out by what is happening right now. The public, or a certain segment of it, is simply not satisfied with the official penalty, which is calculated as several times the family income of the year before each "illegal" child was born. They demanded apologies, which Zhang delivered in a solemn voice in a video interview.

This, in my mind, is way across the line of propriety. It is in the realm of Red Guards toppling figures of authority under the illusion that true equality would be achieved.

Since family planning is enshrined in law in China, every citizen should abide by it. The law stipulates that anyone who violates it will be punished with a monetary fine. It does not require that he apologize to the whole country. There is a difference between breaking the law and trampling on ethics.

It would have been unethical if Zhang had pulled strings and got his children "hukou registration" with special permission from authorities, in which case the fault would have been with those who granted him the privilege. And it would have been disgustingly hypocritical if he had advocated draconian implementation of the family planning law while he himself secretly violated it. But he did neither.

When the crowd bays for blood

He just wanted to have two more children than is legally allowed. He could have easily done it by obtaining Hong Kong residency or moved his family overseas. For reasons I cannot fathom, he preferred to have the children born in China (the mainland) and stashed them away in a way uncomfortably reminiscent of Anne Frank. Just imagine China's foremost film artist keeping his family in the dark from the public for over a dozen years. Either the paparazzi were doing a terrible job or he was doing a terrific job hiding from them.

Violating the family planning policy is not like stealing from others. For one thing, Zhang did not have a bunch of kids and shove them to the state for financial support. He and his family are fully capable of raising them. More importantly, this law was first designed with a long litany of exceptions: Rural couples whose first child is a girl can have one more; ethnic minorities are not bound by it; families who are willing to pay the penalty can have more, etc. In current China, an average couple has about 1.5 children, which roughly translates to two children for half of them and the other half having one child.

Family planning is a policy whose applicability is always being calibrated. There were times when its execution was rigorous and times when it was palpably relaxed. The new revision to allow couples to have one more child if either the husband or the wife is an only child is a sign of further loosening control of the policy. Experts are forever debating how fast the grip should be eased and when the system should be abolished all together.

It is simply ludicrous that some people see Zhang's violation as if he had committed rape or arson. They argue that a celebrity like him be held up to the highest standard of morality. But the way I see it, his nonobservance has nothing to do with ethics or morality. It is just an issue of legal technicality. The law has embedded a loophole or an exception in the guise of a financial forfeit. It does not mind if people who pay it have more than one child.

Public sentiment can be a force of good or evil. For example, online vigilance has repeatedly brought down corrupt officials. But the impulse to knock down figures of power can be undiscriminating. Some people do not seem to ask themselves whether what Zhang did compromised public interest. Like the Red Guards in the "cultural revolution" (1966-76), they believed that shooting down people like Zhang Yimou would create a better world. It does not seem to occur to them that if Zhang had to pay more than legally stipulated, it would be much worse when the same happened to them.

In a widely reposted tweet, I defended Zhang, arguing that he should pay the fine only and need not apologize. Those who are pummeling him on the moral high ground are even worse than Javert, the police inspector in Les Miserables who made it his mission to bring Valjean to justice. And Valjean, like Zhang, had done something, like stealing a loaf of bread for starving children, which is technically illegal but that anyone with common sense can understand. The lynch mob has the mentality of the Thenardiers, striving for equality not by lifting themselves up but by knocking others down.

The campaign to strip any citizen, let alone a great artist who has brought his country enormous fame and pride, of basic human dignity is deplorable.

Just let the father be.

Contact the writers at raymondzhou@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily Africa Weekly 01/17/2014 page30)

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