Granted remarkable access to the daily business of a high-ranking mainland Chinese official, Zhou Hao’s “The Chinese Mayor” offers a fascinating verite portrait of the collision between progress, politics, corruption and citizens’ rights in a rapidly changing People’s Republic. This rare peek behind the usual scrim of government image management is a natural for niche broadcasters and anyone else interested in quality current-events documentary features.
Fifty-four-year-old Geng Yanbo is the mayor of Datong, a metropolis of 3.4 million in Shanxi province that was long a coal-industry capital. But now that business is in decline, leaving as its major legacy the status of China’s most polluted city. Geng has made it his mission to transform Datong into a tourist-magnetizing cultural center, highlighting its important role throughout central dynasties of Imperial Chinese history.
But restoring and/or constructing the attractions key to that goal demands considerable sacrifice from residents, large numbers of whom are being forced to leave their longtime (yet illegal by hitherto unenforced law) family homes so entire neighborhoods can be razed. Worse, the “affordable housing” these mostly poor citizens are supposed to move into isn’t actually affordable to many; “low-rent” housing that they can afford has a wait list of three years. As they’re being rendered homeless, their material losses are compensated either insufficiently or not at all.
Thus, residents are raising vigorous objections, mounting public protests, even confronting riot police. (While Geng’s situation may be unique, it is noted that most Chinese mayors reside in military compounds for their own safety.) Understandably, they wonder just whose interests the government represents, when their own most basic needs are considered so insignificant.
Our first impression of Geng supports the substantial (if by no means universal) public antipathy toward him. He seems a sort of human bulldozer: tirelessly touring sites, taking calls while paying attending meetings and ceremonies, deferring to none. But the longer we witness him in action, the more admirable his efforts appear. Painful though the sacrifices required may be, he has a noble vision for this city that (if pulled off) will have long-term benefits for all.
Constantly besieged by individual citizens who are petitioning for justice (and who complain they’ve been beaten for defending their homes), Geng also deals incessantly with the corrupt bureaucracy and contractors under his purported command, who cut construction-cost corners at the citizens’ expense; many projects are inexplicably far behind schedule. Geng’s public humiliations of the guilty parties result in groveling apologies that one doubts will lead to any real systemic improvements. While we never see him at home, there is a sort of running gag in the form of frequent calls from the wife who berates Geng (“Are you tired of living?!?”) as she’s driven to exasperated tears by his insomniac, health-imperiling work pace.
What makes this frank picture of Chinese government at work even more surprising is the story’s conclusion, in which party higher-ups make an abrupt, baffling decision about Geng’s immediate future. It leaves all his work in limbo, the city in huge debt, and the citizens’ sacrifices possibly all for naught. Despite their prior protestations, the latter now grieve an inexplicable catastrophe that can only further erode trust in the nation’s leadership.
The film’s breathlessly on-the-run progress suggests Zhou had almost unlimited access — an intimacy underlined near the close when Geng asks just what the director has been filming, as he’d become so accustomed to the one-man crew he’d long since forgotten he was there. Compelling as both nonfiction narrative and character capture, the pic has a laserlike focus strengthened by the lack of soundtracked music or other packaging filigree.