As a film about the pollution crisis hitting China today, The Chinese Mayor leaves much to be desired. However, it succeeds in brilliantly portraying the struggles of Chinese politics and the people’s relationship to their government.
The film follows the daily life of Geng Yanbo, then mayor of Datong, a city that was once the hub of the coal industry in China. That industry, however, is on the decline due to environmental problems and has left Datong with the reputation of being one of China’s most polluted cities.
Geng’s mission is to distract the world from Datong’s pollution flaws by making the city the ultimate tourist destination. He plans to do this by building new cultural centers and highlighting Datong’s ancient history. In the process, he relocates a large portion of the population, most of whom are poor and have no place to go.
In addition, Geng’s connection to China’s sole-governing Communist Party invites a struggle between his noble desire to improve his city and the demands of the powers that be.
The environmental aspect of the film acts merely as a hook. The only visual illustration of Datong’s pollution crisis – and a poor one at that – shows a group of children walking to school, covering their faces with their shirts due to the dust from a nearby construction site. The film fails to mention some of the worst aspects of Datong’s pollution problem.
According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, China is one of the world’s largest producers and consumers of coal. The Chinese government has long been attempting to reduce its dependence by controlling emissions and halting construction of new coal mines. Gases emitted from coal plants have contributed to 670,000 deaths a year according to a 2014 study done by associate professor Teng Fei from Tsinghua University.
The film follows Geng through daily work meetings and interactions with his family and the people of Datong. Throughout, one gets the sense that Geng is tremendously respected by the community but also reviled by some who do not wish to be relocated. Geng can be authoritative, especially when he scolds his workers for a job poorly done. He also plays the part of the concerned politician when interacting with the people. His brutal honesty, added some humorous moments throughout the film.
The director, Hao Zhou’s, presence is very much felt, with the mayor interacting with him several times. Various subjects actively sense the camera’s presence, not surprising in a country that strictly monitors free speech.
Geng tolerates being a politician, but he wants to do it well. In one scene, Geng expresses his childhood desire to become a writer or a journalist. He is fascinated by ancient Chinese culture. Geng in many ways transfers his desire for creativity and culture, into his job as a politician. His passion for the city is expressed in the final moments of the film as he is relocated by the party to a different city. In a powerful scene, the camera stands behind him as he leaves the government building, showing a large group of people applauding and congratulating him. After photos and goodbyes, he enters his car with tears in his eyes.
In a world often dominated by unilateral views of China, The Chinese Mayor offers a much-needed glimpse into Chinese government and is indispensable for anyone seeking to understand it.