China is on an elaborate PR offensive to rebrand the north-western region of Xinjiang, where the United States, other western countries and human rights groups say genocide has been inflicted on the Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities.
Inspired by the Hollywood blockbuster “La La Land”, China produced a musical set in Xinjiang, where the province is portrayed as a rural idyll of ethnic cohesion devoid of repression, mass surveillance and even the Islam religion of its majority Uyghur population.
The movie “The Wings of Songs”, 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 desertscapes 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.
In one scene, a leading character, a well-shaven Uyghur, toasts with a beer in his hand.
As allegations of slavery and forced labour inside Xinjiang’s cotton industry have drawn renewed global attention, including big brands like Nike saying they would no longer source materials from the region, inside China, Beijing has been curating a very different narrative for the troubled region.
Rap songs, photo exhibitions and the musical are leading the cultural reframing of the region, while a legion of celebrities have seemingly unprompted leapt to the defence of Xinjiang’s tarnished textile industry.
Beijing denies all allegations of abuse and has instead recast 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.
At least one million Uyghurs and other mostly Muslim groups have been held in camps in Xinjiang, according to right groups, where authorities are also accused of forcibly sterilising women and imposing forced labour.
That has enraged Beijing, which at first denied the existence of the camps and then defended them as training programmes.
In March, Britain and the EU took joint action with the US and Canada to impose parallel sanctions on senior Chinese officials involved in the mass internment of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang province in the first such western action against Beijing since Joe Biden took office.
China hit back immediately, blacklisting MEPs, European diplomats and think tanks.
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 labour 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 the trust of people in China, but 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, while 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. (Source: The Guardian)