A new state-produced musical set in Xinjiang inspired by Hollywood blockbuster ‘La La Land’ has hit China’s cinemas, portraying a rural idyll of ethnic cohesion devoid of repression, mass surveillance, and even its Islam Uighur population. China is on an elaborate public relations offensive to rebrand the northwestern region. The United States and other nations say “genocide” inflicted the Uighurs and other Muslim minorities. As allegations of slavery and forced labor inside Xinjiang’s cotton industry draw renewed global attention inside China, Beijing is curating a very different narrative for the troubled region.
Rap songs, photo exhibitions, and a musical – ‘The Wings of Songs’ – lead the region’s cultural reframing. At the same time, a legion of celebrities has, seemingly unprompted, leaped to the defense of Xinjiang’s tarnished textile industry.
Beijing denies all abuses and has instead cast Xinjiang as a haven of social cohesion and economic renewal that has turned its back on years of violent extremism thanks to benevolent state intervention.
The movie, whose release was reportedly delayed by a year, focuses on three men from different ethnic groups dreaming of the big time as they gather musical inspiration across cultures in the snow-capped mountains and desert-scapes of the vast region.
Trailing the movie, state-run Global Times reported that overseas blockbusters such as “La La Land” have “inspired Chinese studios” to produce their own domestic hits.
But the musical omits the surveillance cameras and security checks that blanket Xinjiang.
Also noticeably absent are references to Islam – despite more than half of the population of Xinjiang being Muslim – and there are no mosques or women in veils.
A leading character, a well-shaven Uighur, toasts with a beer in his hand in one scene.
According to right groups, at least one million Uighurs and primarily other Muslim groups have been held in camps in Xinjiang, where authorities are accused of forcibly sterilizing women and imposing forced labor.
That has enraged Beijing, which denied the existence of the camps and then defended them as training programs.
Last month, China swiftly closed down the Clubhouse app. On this audio platform, uncensored discussions briefly flowered, including on Xinjiang, with Uighurs giving unvarnished accounts of life to attentive Han Chinese guests.
The current PR push on Xinjiang aims at controlling the narrative for internal consumption, says Larry Ong of US-based consultancy SinoInsider.
Beijing “knows that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes truth,” he said.
To many Chinese, that messaging appears to be working.
“I have been to Xinjiang, and the film is very realistic,” one moviegoer told AFP after seeing ‘The Wings of Songs’ in Beijing.
“People are happy, free, and open,” he said, declining to give his name.
Last week, celebrities, tech brands, and state media – whipped up by outrage on China’s tightly controlled social media – piled in on several global fashion brands who have raised concerns over forced labor and refused to source cotton from Xinjiang.
Sweden’s H&M was the worst hit and on Wednesday attempted to limit the damage in its fourth-largest market.
The clothing giant issued a statement saying it wanted to regain people’s trust in China. Still, the message was greeted with scorn on the Twitter-like Weibo platform, where 35 million people shared the fashion chain’s comments.
The pushback has taken on a pop culture edge, with a rap released this week castigating “lies” by the “Western settlers” about cotton from the region. At the same time, state broadcaster CGTN is set to release a documentary on the unrest that prompted the Beijing crackdown.
It is impossible to gain unfettered access to Xinjiang, with foreign media shadowed by authorities on visits and then harassed for their reporting.
This week, BBC journalist John Sudworth hurriedly left China for Taiwan, alleging “intimidation” after reporting on conditions in the cotton farms of Xinjiang.