Zhang Yimou, the embattled mainland filmmaker and father of three, faces a staggering fine of 7.49 million yuan (HK$9.51 million) for violating China's birth-control policies.
His troubles, after making national headlines, have drawn sympathy in social media and online forums.
As of Friday morning, an ongoing poll showed that 43.6 per cent of more than 30,000 takers said the punishment was "too heavy." While 32.7 per cent deemed it "too light," another 12.2 per cent believed the fine was "just right".
"Leave! You could have used this money to apply for a foreign passport," many wrote on the Sina Weibo page where the poll was published, slamming the fine as "outrageous".
"By punishing Zhang, the Chinese government is driving away the country's top talent," a microblogger commented.
"It's nonsense to slap Zhang with a bigger fine because he makes more money," Zhou Xiaozheng, a professor of sociology at Renmin University in Beijing, told mainland media on Thursday. "People who support this are selfishly venting their own frustration and anger."
"It's his human right to have as many children as he desires," Zhou added.
Questions were also raised as to where the money from the fine would go. Many bloggers feared it would be used to feed bureaucracy and corruption.
The authorities disclosed earlier that Zhang had made just 2,760 yuan in the year 2000, the period before his unemployed wife gave birth to their first child. That figure was challenged by many who found it "unrealistically low".
Zhang later explained to reporters that incomes of directors fluctuate. "I would spend more than a year working on a movie script," he said, "I even lose money in some years."
Zhang made 1,062,760 yuan in 2003, the year before the birth of the couple's second child, and 2,518,590 yuan in 2005, the year before the birth of their third, according to the authorities. The sum of the household's income in these three years was used as a basis to calculate the fine.
The couple, registered as residents in Wuxi, had 30 days to pay the full amount. Alternatively, they could ask for an administrative review, or launch a law suit to challenge the decision, the Family Planning Bureau in Wuxi said on Thursday.