China’s urban management officers, or chengguan, have been locked in an intense cat-and-mouse game with local street vendors for decades.
Tasked with cleaning up the city streets, chengguan have become infamous for their heavy-handed — and sometimes violent — attempts to stamp out unregistered businesses. Despite government efforts to reform the force in recent years, ugly incidents continue to make headlines — whether it’s officers accusing a disabled street performer of “tainting the city’s image,” or beating up a female fruit vendor.
But in “City Dream,” the latest feature by renowned documentary filmmaker Chen Weijun, the chengguan finally meet their match.
Shot in the central city of Wuhan, the film follows an elderly migrant named Wang Tiancheng as he mounts a desperate — and ultimately successful — campaign to fend off a squad of chengguan, who have been ordered to shut down his business.
In the film, Wang, a native of the central Henan province, has been selling fruit and clothing on a busy street corner in Wuhan for over a decade. The income from the stall supports his entire family — including a son with disability and school-age granddaughter — and he’s willing to go to any length to defend it.
Whenever the chengguan approach his street corner, Wang unleashes a barrage of shouts, punches, and suicidal threats. His performances attract crowds of sympathetic passersby, forcing the officers to retreat.
As the pressure on the chengguan mounts, they resort to a number of tactics in an attempt to gain the upper hand over the elderly vendor. These plans, however, often end in abject failure. In one scene, the force sends a junior officer to spy on Wang’s business activities, but Wang soon sniffs him out and confiscates his notebook.
“They (the street vendors) are the weak in life, but we are the weak in work,” one squad member laments.
Such standoffs have been commonplace in Chinese cities for years, but “City Dream” offers a unique perspective on the issue by embedding camera crews on both sides. The film intersperses footage of the chengguan brainstorming how to evict the street vendors with scenes focusing on the Wangs’ daily lives, giving the viewer a God’s-eye view of the conflict.
This even-handed approach is one of the director’s trademarks. Now aged 53, Chen has spent his career presenting nuanced examinations of contentious social issues: 2003’s “To Live Is Better Than to Die” shone a light on China’s worsening AIDS epidemic; 2007’s “Please Vote for Me” documented a democratic election in an elementary school; while 2016’s “This Is Life” explored the overlooked pain and sacrifices borne by new mothers.
A screenshot from the film shows Wang Tianchen riding a bike. Courtesy of Dai Nianwen
But in “City Dream,” Chen’s sympathetic portrayal of the chengguan has proved controversial. Throughout “City Dream,” the squad behaves with remarkable restraint — in contrast to the force’s reputation for bullying.
In the face of Wang’s verbal and physical attacks, the officers stick closely to the rules laid out in the department’s conduct handbook — refusing to fight back even when he slaps them in the face. Eventually, they bring their battle with Wang to an end by agreeing to build the vendor a new, upgraded fruit stall in another part of Wuhan.
On review site Douban, the film has divided viewers. Though many have praised “City Dream” as fair and balanced, others say it effectively amounts to propaganda for Wuhan’s city management bureau.
The department itself appears to be delighted with the film: When “City Dream” premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival last year, the bureau endorsed it as “China’s first documentary with a truthful depiction of chengguan.”
Chen anticipated a backlash. In 2019, he predicted jokingly that Chinese audiences might accuse him of xi di, or whitewashing, the chengguan’s reputation after seeing the film.
Yet the director insists the chengguan are often misunderstood. Throughout its history, the urban management bureau has been placed in an awkward role. Its officers are unarmed and lack the authority granted to other branches of Chinese law enforcement, yet they are charged with enforcing regulations regarding all aspects of city life, from sanitation to construction. In Chen’s words, the force is really a “toothless tiger.”
A poster for “City Dream.” Courtesy of Dai Nianwen
In the long run, however, discussions over Chen’s attitude toward chengguan are likely to be overshadowed by the director’s shock announcement that “City Dream” would be the final documentary of his career.
At the film’s premiere in the Chinese mainland, the director — who has been receiving medical treatment abroad — revealed via a recorded video message that his health problems had become too severe for him to continue working on the ground.
After a limited theatrical release, the 102-minute documentary film is now streaming on Tencent Video. It has also been adapted into a TV series, though the broadcast date has yet to be confirmed.
In a rare interview, Chen Weijun spoke with Sixth Tone’s sister publication The Paper about the making of “City Dream,” which we have republished with permission. The following also includes a conversation between Sixth Tone and the film’s producer, Dai Nianwen, about how the project came about. Both interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity.
The Paper: Why did you decide to tell the stories of chengguan officers and street vendors?
Chen Weijun: It was five or six years ago. Dai Nianwen and I met with an official from the radio and television bureau in Beijing. The official asked if we dared to tell a China story tackling the chengguan issue. I thought, if the official had an open mind and an interest in telling this story, and I had support on the production side, this is something that could work.
In the past, when we talked about the urban management bureau, both Chinese and foreign media would call it the most hated department in China’s administrative system. Why is it like that? I don’t believe the department was set up to intensify social conflicts. Any government hopes to manage society in a harmonious manner.
China’s “reform and opening-up” has been a process of rapid urbanization. No country has done it in such a short period of time. To tell a story about modern China, it’s necessary to deal with the contradiction between the urban and rural areas — the conflicts that emerge when migrant workers enter the city.
A screenshot from the film shows Wang Tiancheng (left) and his son at their street stall. Courtesy of Dai Nianwen
The Paper: What was the most difficult part of the filmmaking process?
Chen: The most difficult aspect of making documentaries is maintaining relationships with the characters.
Wang Tiancheng is a man who went from the countryside to the city to make a living. No one told him how to do it, or how to deal with people after leaving a farmer’s society. So he can be rather sensitive. He turned me down when I first mentioned I wanted to film the dispute between him and the chengguan.
Later, Wang found the city management bureau’s attitude toward him had improved slightly. He thought it was because of our shooting, and let us shoot more. But when the chengguan began pushing to clean up his booth, he again thought it was because we were shooting him, and stopped letting us film.
Some viewers may think Wang’s conflict with the chengguan happened because of our filming. It’s not true. Before we started shooting, he’d already been struggling against the urban management bureau for more than 10 years, and the confrontations were far more intense.
His daughter-in-law once clashed with a chengguan and hit the guy’s head with a chair. Someone like Wang wouldn’t dare act like that just because there was a camera rolling. The camera is just a camera. It doesn’t bring him greater protection, nor does it endorse his actions.
The Paper: How do you see the relationship between the chengguan and street vendors? Is it a “cat-and-mouse game,” and is one side really so much stronger than the other?
Chen: Of course there is a stronger one and a weaker one, but it’s misplaced strength and weakness.
Vendors like Wang are weak. They want to live a better life and make a living in the city, but they have neither money nor technology, so they are at the bottom of the social hierarchy. The vendors confronting the chengguan, it’s like throwing an egg at a rock. People will naturally sympathize with the “eggs.”
However, the urban management bureau is the weakest institution in the entire administrative system. The police, for example, are the main branch of law enforcement, so no one will enter a conflict with the police lightly. But with the chengguan, it’s different. In “City Dream,” we show Wang tearing up the rectification notice issued by the chengguan, but it’s more a reminder than an official notice.
Why can he refuse to accept or even tear off the notice issued by the urban management bureau? It’s because the bureau is a “toothless tiger.” For a vendor like Wang, he needed to set up his stall every day, so he could put food on the table. He gradually realized the urban management bureau had no coercive powers, and so conflicts slowly arose.
A screenshot from the film shows Wang Tiancheng clashing with an urban management officer. Courtesy of Dai Nianwen
The Paper: What did you learn through making “City Dream?”
Chen: In this film, the biggest consensus reached between the urban management bureau and Wang’s family was that Pingping, Wang’s granddaughter, was already a city girl at heart, even though Wang and his son might still be willing to go back to the countryside. Pingping is from Wuhan. She grew up in the city and has become like any city girl. If she “returned” to the village, she wouldn’t know anyone there.
How should our society face the realities of post-urbanization? China has been urbanizing for decades. If not for the migrant workers who left their families to build high-rises, how could such glamorous urban landscapes be possible? If not for their overtime work on the assembly lines, how could the country become the “world’s factory?”
They came to pursue city dreams, and did what they were supposed to. Now, someone should give them some credit. I hope one day the migrant workers can wake up and say, “I am a city resident, and I have been accepted by the city.” This is what I want to say the most.
Sixth Tone: Dai Nianwen, you and Chen Weijun have collaborated on two films: “This Is Life” and now “City Dream.” How did your partnership first begin?
Dai Nianwen: Chen Weijun and I met around 2013 and wanted to work together. He was an established documentary director, but it’s fair to say his work wasn’t widely known to a mainstream audience. He’d been producing mostly independent works, mainly in collaboration with international organizations.
But we figured we could collaborate as a team. I am responsible for finding the money, making things happen. He, a skilled director, could fully devote himself to storytelling without having to worry about other issues. Chen Liang, the executive producer, is the founder of (Shanghai-based TV station) Dragon TV, and has a deep understanding of China's media environment and social context. He takes holistic management over art, distribution, and everything else.
Sixth Tone: For both “This Is Life” and “City Dream,” you distributed the films through multiple channels, including a theatrical release, a TV series, and digital streaming. Why did you choose this approach?
Dai: There wasn’t really a good solution (for distributing documentaries in China) before “This Is Life.” But Chen Weijun, Chen Liang, and I thought there must be a workable way to distribute a good film. We considered whether we had a film for the cinema, and made a feature-length version. But we knew we didn’t want to just make a film, because we had captured more footage than we could fit into a single feature.
We coined the Chinese term ji lu ju, meaning “documentary TV series.” Each of the 13 episodes of “This Is Life” has a run time of 70 minutes, which is the same length as a typical Chinese variety show. So we structured the series with the broadcast requirements in mind.
There’s also a second issue, to be honest. In China, there’s an official review process for TV dramas, and a different one for fictional films. But there isn’t yet a system for documentaries. So the broadcast platforms carry the burden of reviewing and deciding whether or not the content is too sensitive themselves.
If we hadn’t gotten the film version approved, the TV stations wouldn’t know whether the series version could air. So we submitted the film for approval to the film regulators. After that, we could assure everyone the content was safe.
Editor: Dominic Morgan.
(Header image: A screenshot from the film shows Wang Tiancheng clashing with several urban management officers. Courtesy of Dai Nianwen)