A worker unloads cotton picked from Xinjiang at a railway station in Jiujiang in China's central Jiangxi province on March 26, 2021. Photo: AFP / STR

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 the repression, mass surveillance and even the Islam of its majority Uighur population.

China is on an elaborate PR offensive to rebrand the northwestern region where the United States says “genocide” has been inflicted on 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 – are leading the cultural reframing of the region, while a legion of celebrities have – seemingly unprompted – leapt to the defense of Xinjiang’s tarnished textile industry. 

Beijing denies all allegations of abuses 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.

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 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 Uyihur, toasts with a beer in his hand.

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 sterilizing women and imposing forced labor.

That has enraged Beijing, which at first denied the existence of the camps and then defended them as training programs.

Reality check

Last month, China swiftly closed down the Clubhouse app, an audio platform where 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 that 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 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.

This week, BBC journalist John Sudworth hurriedly left China for Taiwan, alleging “intimidation” after reporting on conditions in the cotton farms of Xinjiang.