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Inside China's Star-Making Machine

By order of the People’s Republic of China, Ruhan Jia will be a global pop star
Inside China's Star-Making Machine
Photograph by Ka Xiaoxl; Illustration by Pinar and Viola

On the day of her American debut as a pop singer, Ruhan Jia, 29, lithe, long-haired, and well-mannered, turned off the air conditioning in her modest Manhattan hotel room to protect her voice and tried to relax. She ordered some sushi. She did some stretching. Other than that, she was quiet.

Jia, a soprano trained in the Chinese and Western operatic traditions, recorded her first album, Time to Grow, last year. It’s a crossover, multinational effort that combines pop and classical as well as Chinese and Western sensibilities, and is sung mostly in Mandarin. Many listeners might hear in it something like a Chinese version of Sarah Brightman, the soprano who starred in The Phantom of the Opera and went on to an eclectic recording career. Time to Grow was produced in Sweden and mixed by Bernard Löhr, who has worked with Céline Dion and Il Divo. A British record company is distributing it. Jia’s manager is a woman from Taiwan who has lived in the U.S. and Europe for years. Jia’s recording contract is with the biggest music company in China. And her entire career has the backing of the Chinese government, which desperately wants an officially approved artist to gain the kind of worldwide attention its dissidents usually get. Time to Grow is the first release from China’s optimistically named Earth’s Music project, which is part of the government’s five-year national economic development plan.