All throughout China’s history, the vast majority of its population has lived in the Eastern part of the country. Life in Western China was very different than life in the East. Gansu, Ningxia, Qinghai, Xikang, Xinjiang, and the Tibet Autonomous Region had many differences with the Eastern provinces. The region had few urban areas. The region’s largest city was Lanzhou in Gansu, with a population of a little more than 800,000 as of the 1965 census. The region was ethnically distinct, with many Mongols, Tibetans, Hui, Uyghurs, and others. The religious landscape was different as well. There were many Muslims and Tibetan Buddhists. Linguistically, the West was distinct, as a large portion of the population was unable to speak Mandarin, or any Chinese dialect at all. As such, the West was generally not the main focus of the central government in Nanjing.
Tibet was even more sparsely populated than the rest of Western China. It had achieved de facto independence for forty years before being brought back under Chinese rule. Tibet was invaded by a Western Chinese general, Ma Bufang of Qinghai. Thubten Kunphela was installed as the first governor of the Tibet Autonomous Region. Kunphela was an ethnic Tibetan, as were most of the members of the new Tibetan government. The province would be ruled not by the Kuomintang, but by it’s Tibetan affiliate, the Tibet Improvement Party, which was led by Pandaatsang Rapga. As such, Tibetan culture was promoted. Few Han Chinese would move there.
In order to show that the new pro-Chinese administration was not a Chinese puppet, the government of the Tibet Autonomous Region would recognize Tibetan holidays and celebrate famous historical Tibetans. In 1955, a statue of Jamphel Yeshe Gyaltsen was erected. Gyantsen the former regent for the Dalai Lama who appealed to the Kuomintang to overthrow the Tibetan government and died in 1947 after being tortured in prison. Tibetan schools weren’t even required to teach Mandarin at first, though the majority offered Mandarin classes and some required them. The Tibetan government pursued land reform separately, finishing shortly after the rest of China. This gave the Tibet Improvement Party a base of support among the former peasantry of Tibet.
The Tibet Improvement Party’s rule was virtually unchallenged until 1984, and all five members of the Legislative Yuan from Tibet would be members of the TIP until the 1990s. But not everyone was happy. There were occasional protests and riots against Chinese rule. The Dalai Lama was upset with losing his power, and was considering backing the failed coup against Chiang Kai-shek. By the late 60s, however, the Dalai Lama realized that opposing China was futile and that working within the system was the best option. Plenty of Tibetans were upset with the introduction of secularism as well. In 1957, the Tibetan National Party was founded, and was promptly banned by the authorities. Tsepon W. D. Shakabpa, former Tibetan finance minister, spent five years in prison for his support of Tibetan independence. After being released in 1963, he left China in order to be the voice of the Tibetan independence movement. He travelled across the world, promoting Tibetan independence and condemning the Chinese government.
Xinjiang was China’s largest province by size, though far from its largest by population. Parts of the province were controlled by Mongolia, the Soviet Union, the East Turkestan Republic, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and India. In 1965, less than 20% of the province’s population was Han Chinese, with the rest being majority-Uyghur. There were many Kazakhs and Hui as well. Minorities in Xinjiang were in some cases allowed to have bilingual schools where both the native language and Mandarin were taught. Relations between the Han and Uyghurs or the Hui and Uyghurs were not always great. Though violence was not common in the early years, it was not unheard of. There were a large number of Hui soldiers in the province, a group that had historically been rivals of the Uyghurs.
Throughout the 1950s, the governor of Xinjiang Province was Burhan Shahidi. He was a born in Russia and was a Tatar, a very small minority group in China. He was firmly anti-Communist and firmly opposed to Xinjiang separatism. He aided Osman Batyr in his attempts to overthrow the government of East Turkestan. He oversaw the founding of the Academy of Central Asia in 1959, an organization with the original goal of undermining the Soviet Puppet State of East Turkestan. Of course, the Soviet Union and Mongolia tried to subvert the Chinese government in Xinjiang as well. In 1962, Shahidi was replaced by Yulbars Khan, an ethnic Uyghur with ties to Chen Lifu and the far-right faction of the KMT. He mostly continued Shahidi’s policies.
The Provinces of Ningxia, Gansu, and Qinghai had the highest concentrations of the Hui minority, a Muslim Chinese ethnic group that overwhelmingly supported the KMT. These three provinces were unusual in that they were ruled by warlords longer than anywhere else in China. The most famous of the warlords was Ma Bufang, who commanded most of the Chinese forces in the western part of the country. He was also the governor of Qinghai. Ma Hongkui ruled Gansu and Ma Hongkui ruled Ningxia. These three governors all were placed in command of military forces, but unlike in the warlord era, they were integrated within the command structure of the Chinese army. The Chinese government would mostly leave them alone to govern their provinces until the 1990s.