BEIJING: Designer Zhou Li took to the stage amid applause following her runway show at China Fashion Week with a prop that has political overtones: A bouquet of cotton plants.

“As far as I’m concerned, I think Xinjiang cotton is my sweetheart, my love, which is to say I’m very grateful it has brought me such happiness,” Zhou, 56, told Reuters after her show on Tuesday (Mar 30) in Beijing.

She said her garments on show on Tuesday, which featured slick minimalist designs with ruffles and ancient Chinese characters, used Xinjiang cotton exclusively.

“For our Chinese designs, I’m certainly right to support the Xinjiang people,” she said.

The backlash has put the brands in an awkward position given the importance of the market in China, where news and social media are tightly controlled by the Communist Party-controlled government and patriotic campaigns targeting foreign brands are common.

“First of all, as everyone knows, these are false statements (from the brands),” 19-year old fashion model Zhao Yinuo said outside the event. “But of course I can’t comment too much on this because it involves political issues.”

The European Union, the United States, Britain and Canada last week imposed sanctions on Chinese officials, accusing them of human rights abuses in Xinjiang. China retaliated with sanctions of its own on lawmakers and academics.

Xinjiang produces around 20 per cent of the world’s cotton.

Some researchers and lawmakers say Xinjiang authorities use coercive labour programmes to meet seasonal cotton picking needs. China strongly denies the claims, and says all labour in Xinjiang is consensual and contract-based.

“I can’t believe our Chinese Communist Party would ever do such a thing,” said a 19-year old student surnamed Li at the fashion event. “Our nation is very united.”