This paper will argue that the 1949 advent of Chinese Communist rule in Xinjiang resulted not in the imposition of centralized Party nationality policy, but rather in the validation and strengthening of national identities previously worked out by local Muslim intellectuals. This process had its roots in the 1930s, when the power of China’s central state ebbed to insignificance in the northwestern borderlands, and a series of uprisings by Xinjiang’s Muslim majority challenged Chinese control of the province. To preserve his beleaguered regime, warlord Sheng Shicai invited Soviet troops into Xinjiang in the mid-1930s, with the understanding that he would thereafter govern the province as a Soviet satellite, complete with Soviet-style economic, cultural, and nationality policies. These were the first socialist-inspired nationality policies to be introduced anywhere in China, and they continued to shape nationality affairs in Xinjiang in the years to come. Indeed, the ethnicity policies rolled out across China in the 1950s can be seen as the nationalization of the Xinjiang precedent.
This paper will demonstrate that the quasi-socialist policies implemented in Xinjiang in the 1930s and 1940s helped produce a tight-knit cohort of leftist, Soviet-leaning Muslim intellectuals who dominated official culture in the province both before and after the beginning of Chinese Communist rule. Beginning in the 1930s, these intellectuals came to identify as Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other nationalities, and began fleshing out these identities with new national cultures. After Chinese Communist rule began, these leftist intellectuals comprised a much-needed local talent pool for the Party, which until that point had no members from Xinjiang’s Muslim communities. This cohort of intellectuals, connected by networks of personal, ideological, and hometown loyalties, soon came to dominate the Xinjiang party-state’s educational and cultural bureaucracies, thus endowing them with unprecedented power to propagate the national identities and cultures they had developed.