China and Inner Asia
Organized Panel Session
In the mid-1940s, the government of Xinjiang Province carried out an unprecedented experiment with press liberalization. Following the formation of a coalition administration between the Chinese Nationalist Party and the breakaway Eastern Turkestan Republic, the provincial government permitted Uyghur-language newspapers free rein to publish reader letters criticizing aspects of government, social relations, and more. Provincial leaders believed that liberalizing the press would demonstrate the good faith and intentions of the new administration, while permitting citizens to express longstanding grievances and thereby facilitating the improvement of governance and intercommunal relations.
While this liberal experiment lasted only a year, the numerous letters to the editor published during that period constitute an outstanding source on Uyghur public opinion in Republican Xinjiang—one so far untapped by researchers in China or abroad. Many of the letters printed during this period were composed by local intellectuals or informal youth groups, and express opinions otherwise unrepresented in the extant written record of the period. This paper will demonstrate that these letters, in addition to forming a unique source on popular opinion, constituted in their own time the beginnings of a Uyghur-language public sphere in Xinjiang. With the spread of print matter and native-language literacy in the province, writers of letters to the editor sought to sway the opinions not only of state authorities, but of fellow citizens as well. A close reading of this unexplored body of sources will afford new insight into the link between print culture and popular opinion in twentieth-century China.