Friday, Jul 28, 2017, 8:50 PM CST – China


Documentarian Zhou Hao

Glimpse Into Chaos

By gaining exclusive access to the daily working life of a Chinese city mayor, fly-on-the-wall director Zhou Hao has enlivened public perceptions of a rich, complex social sphere

Scenes from The Chinese Mayor, and its poster art (bottom left) Photo by CFP

Director Zhou Hao’s latest documentary is simply named Datong in Chinese, for the city where it was shot. In English, it’s The Chinese Mayor, after its protagonist.

It’s not easy for an independent documentarian to gain access to a public figure as sensitive as a Communist Party-appointed mayor in a major Chinese city for even a simple TV interview, never mind a three-year, fly-on-the-wall documentary. But Zhou Hao managed to gain the cooperation of Geng Yanbo, mayor of Datong, Shanxi Province, perhaps the country’s only celebrity official.

“Was I tough throughout?” Geng asks Zhou, at the end of the documentary. “What did you film, anyway?”

“You saw me filming every time,” Zhou replies. “I wasn’t paying attention,” says Geng. “I forgot you were there, you’ve been around so long.”

Zhou’s ability to take his subject’s eye off the camera allowed him to capture many key events in Geng’s professional life, particularly the large-scale demolitions and huge construction projects launched in Datong, the controversies around these projects, and the mayor’s anger, anxiety and sorrow. Often sharing the frame are the people whose lives are changed by Geng’s policies, whose praise and criticism provide a social context for one man’s pursuit of his goals.

The Chinese Mayor currently has a rating of nine out of 10 on review aggregator Douban. The film also received the award for Best Documentary at the Taipei Golden Horse Film Festival in November 2015, making him the first director to win a Golden Horse award for two consecutive years after the success of his 2014 documentary Cotton.

Zhou didn’t attend the awards ceremony. In a post on his WeChat social media account, he commented: “It feels like a dream. I had just woken up and was on my way to a shoot.” His next documentary started shooting the day he won the award.

The City

Geng Yanbo was 50 when he was appointed mayor of the northern city of Datong in 2008. Founded about 1,600 years ago, Datong was the capital of the Northern Wei Dynasty (386–535), and served as the auxiliary capital of several other dynasties and regimes. While home to the Yungang Grottoes, the largest Buddhist reliefs in China, and a handful of other famous historical sites, the city itself, when Geng arrived, was a heavily polluted industrial center, typified by the Soviet-style urban layout, crumbling infrastructure and poor quality of life common in second- and third-tier cities in northern China.

Geng’s plan was to restore and protect the few remaining ancient features of Datong, and transform the rest into a prosperous, cultured metropolis. The flagship project of Geng’s scheme was to completely replicate the city’s Ming Dynasty city wall and other structures, a project that would necessitate the demolition of the homes of 500,000 local residents – nearly 30 percent of Datong’s total population.

Geng was in his office until after 10 PM almost every night, rising again at 4:30 AM. In the documentary, his long-suffering wife complains about his antisocial working hours and even breaks into a meeting Geng is having with important potential investors, demanding he come home.

Every morning, petitioners are seen waiting for Geng outside the gates of his residence in the city’s main military compound. Most are there to protest the demolition of their homes.

According to the municipal work report issued by Datong’s city government in 2012, more than 1,000 hectares of the city’s urban area have been demolished since 2008. Ownership rights in the area’s shantytowns and “urban villages” were at the heart of countless disputes. These stories typically ended in one of two ways: many residents got new apartments and considerable compensation, while others lost their homes. In the documentary, Geng is visibly exhausted by his attempts to balance his development plans with the needs of Datong’s residents.

Geng’s determination and reputed toughness are apparent throughout the film. He is shown openly reprimanding an official for his “inaction” on demolition work, demanding the man’s resignation. In another scene, he verbally abuses a developer for his “shoddy work.” He tried to personally address the complaints of petitioners, even going to demolition sites to try to persuade the owners of so-called “nail houses” to agree to relocate.

In the five years before Geng was suddenly appointed as the mayor of Shanxi’s provincial capital, Taiyuan, in February 2013, Datong was transformed almost beyond recognition. Though many citizens continued to slam the demolitions, Geng had accrued a degree of popularity rare for a Communist official. More than 10,000 citizens protested against his relocation to Taiyuan, petitioning for him to stay. Geng, however, didn’t have a choice in the matter. He left Datong US$3 billion in debt, a crane-strewn construction site littered with unfinished projects that his successor was unwilling to continue.

Today, when approached by the media, Zhou Hao isn’t keen on discussing Geng and The Chinese Mayor. The film was sold to the BBC in February 2015, and was later broadcast by the UK’s Channel 4. Some Chinese websites began to offer unlicensed downloads of the BBC cut of the film, which unnerved Zhou – and not because of the lost royalties. “I don’t really hope this movie will be circulated too widely [in China],” Zhou told NewsChina. He revealed that he has reached out personally to websites offering the film, asking them to delete the download links.


Zhou is 10 years Geng’s junior. Born in the southwestern province of Guizhou, Zhou graduated from college in 1988 and took a job at the Guizhou Institute of Mechanical Design. In his free time, Zhou cultivated an interest in photography, particularly street photography.

Gradually, he worked his way into the field of photojournalism, landing a job with Guizhou Daily in 1992, then moving on to Xinhua News Agency’s Guizhou branch before ending up at the influential Southern Weekly. In 2002, he became a videographer for the Nanfang Newspaper Group and began shooting documentaries.

“Pitch stories, get funding, shoot, edit and done” is his philosophy, he told our reporter. His journalistic background has also made him conscious of which stories are worthy of coverage. In 13 years, he has shot eight feature-length projects, over half of which have won him awards.

His first documentary, Houjie Township, covered the lives of industrial workers in Houjie, a town under the jurisdiction of Dongguan, a manufacturing base in Guangdong Province. Most of his subjects lived in a single apartment complex. Quarrels, love affairs, prostitution, robbery, bullying and conflict made the documentary a powerful depiction of what Zhou calls the “absurd reality” in which certain groups in China are forced to live. The project won him the award for Best Young Director at the 2003 Yunnan Multi-Culture Visual Festival.

“There have never been absolutely ‘good’ or ‘bad’ people in my films,” Zhou told our reporter. He holds on to the ideals of “making no judgment,” “being tolerant” and “presenting the complicated [face of] human nature.”

In Zhou’s opinion, his job isn’t to deliver clear ideas and opinions, but to blur the lines that define preconceived ideas, or even destroy them, through the multifaceted presentation of the “chaos” that characterizes real life.

Zhou’s second documentary, Gaosan, was an in-depth portrayal of the university entrance examination preparation undergone by millions of Chinese high school students in their senior year. Gaosan was awarded the Best Documentary prize at the Hong Kong International Film Festival in 2006. Using, a documentary about a drug trafficker named Long Ge, won the award for Best Asian Documentary at the 2008 Taiwan International Documentary Festival. Zhou has remained friends with Long Ge and continues to lend him money, despite the latter being sentenced to 14 years in prison in 2006.

On each of his projects, Zhou tries to get as close as possible to his subjects while maintaining some distance, especially when his projects stray into the political realm.

In The Chinese Mayor, Zhou recorded the election process that determined Datong’s mayor and Party secretary (in both a single, Party-approved candidate runs unopposed). He caught Geng Yanbo criticizing this electoral system on camera. Party Secretary Feng Lixiang, a prominent figure in The Chinese Mayor, was arrested for corruption one year after the film was shot. Zhou also filmed the chief justice of the Datong People’s Court asking Geng for suggestions on how to deal with the house arrest of a property developer.

In the last film of Zhou’s that involved a Party secretary, 2007’s The Transition Period, the footage, which depicted the official in question discussing how to return a bribe, was left out of his final cut. He reincorporated it after the official was arrested for corruption.

When Zhou’s shoot in Datong reached its end, Geng took Zhou to the airport himself before heading back to work. Since Geng took office as the mayor of Taiyuan, 250,000 people have been relocated. A total of 17 overpasses and seven underground highways have been built. But a promised subway line remains unopened, and the costs of a new airport are mounting.


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