Datong was once the capital of three separate Chinese Imperial dynasties, but today it is known as the “City of Coal”. As a result, the city was once one of the most polluted cities in China. Poverty-filled slums sprawled alongside the ruins of an ancient city, while the economy was supported by coal mines and some tourism to the hanging monastery built in 491 and the Buddhist art in caves outside the city. It became a refuge for the poorest from surrounding provinces.
In 2008, the Central Committee of the CCP assigned a new mayor to the city, with the directive to fix Datong. Mayor Geng Yanbo came in with a 10 billion yuan (USD $1.6 billion) plan to remake the city, which would ultimately result in the relocation of 500,000 people—30 percent of Datong’s population—and turn the city into a hub of entrepreneurship, industry, culture, and art.
Geng’s efforts to rebuild the city were cut short in 2014, when he was transferred to Taiyuan to oversee infrastructure developments there. His unfinished plans for Datong were reamed by foreign press: the South China Morning Post called the project “the greatest damage to Datong in its modern history” and displayed photos of its eerily empty inner city. The Atlantic’s City Lab called the plans Datong a vision of “what China would look like if no actual people lived in it.”
Chinese documentary director Hao Zhou brought a behind-the-scenes look into this gargantuan construction project with his 2015 Sundance premiere film, The Chinese Mayor. In his film, which won the World Cinema Documentary Special Jury Award for Unparalled Access, Hao follows Geng through the process of wrangling a massive city-wide urban renovation project through an even more massive bureaucracy. The film briefly touches on issues of historical authenticity—a statement that “as long as it’s before our time, we should use it” by Geng shows the light attention to historical detail—without judgment; when asked in a Q&A following the film, Hao explains that “I am a journalist” and it was not his place to presume, only document.
However, throughout the film, Geng and his plans are portrayed in a sympathetic light: residents who are angry at being forced from their homes eventually either come around to Geng’s plans or give up fighting; Geng works to make sure he hears from people directly afflicted, walking the construction and demolition sites to personally solve problems or fire corrupt and lazy contractors. A good portion of the film is dedicated to one-on-one interviews with Geng, where he discusses his hopes that Datong’s revitalization will be his legacy, and the completion of the project will allow him to retire from public office. The camera even manages to capture the strain Geng’s dedication to his work puts on his health and marriage—the little sleep he gets and his wife’s worry that he must be “tired of living” when he works long hours in the office.
But the effort seems to be for naught, when suddenly the Central Committee decides Geng must be moved from Datong to Taiyuan, with only one day’s notice. Residents of the city protest in the streets; it is hard to tell if they protest because they genuinely support Geng, or if they fear the city’s rebuilding will go unfinished without him. Contrary to overseas media that wondered if the protest were government-backed because Geng “just left”, the film portrays the incident as a wrenching separation of a popular mayor from his city. Residents come in crowds to say goodbye personally, and the surprise to see such an outpouring shows on Geng’s face. Once he is in the car and being driven away, still waving to residents lining the street to say goodbye, the film shows tears running down Geng’s face.
After Geng’s departure, Datong was left in limbo: the old city wall is half-finished, construction projects have either halted or slowed to a crawl, and the city was left with $3 billion of debt. The Chinese Mayor makes no judgments whether plans for Datong were ‘good’ or ‘bad’ for the city, but the film’s access into how the plans were carried out show a rarely seen side of Chinese politics and policy-making.