Leaked Chinese government documents

Several tranches of classified or otherwise internal documents related to mass internment in Xinjiang have been allegedly leaked to outside news sources. This post details a lot of these leaks, discussing their implications and reliability, and particularly in the case of the New York Times' Xinjiang Papers, refuting arguments that they are forgeries.

The Xinjiang Papers

On Saturday, November 16, 2019, Adam Ramzy and Chris Buckley of the New York Times dropped a major story based on leaked Chinese state documents it claims to have received. NYT said the 24 separate documents numbered over 400 pages, including duplicates. Frustratingly, it did not make the entire cache available, though many of the pages are visible within the article (there's a plausible explanation for this, see the P.S. at the end).

Most of the documents are thoroughly bureaucratic, and they do not appear to mention anything about the allegations of abuse and torture that has appeared in some testimony. First and foremost, they do show that the idea that reeducation camps are merely vocational training schools is a deliberate falsehood. They also show how the Party justifies its mass detention program and how local governments are grappling with what they seem to view as an overwhelming abyss of latent extremism. Finally, they suggest the Party has been having serious difficulties persuading the relatives of detainees that involuntary internment is in their best interests.

Finally, the most revealing document of the batch is related to internal Party investigations of an official who evidently hesitated in fully implementing the mass internment and reeducation directives with full vigor. The document shows the stunning intensity of the campaign and the complete intolerance for any officials such as this one who lived and worked among Uyghurs and were unsure about aspects of the campaign. From the Times:

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An official named Wang Yongzhi was appointed to run Yarkand soon afterward [after a 2014 terrorist attack that killed 37 people]. With his glasses and crew cut, he looked the picture of a party technocrat. He had grown up and spent his career in southern Xinjiang and was seen as a deft, seasoned official who could deliver on the party’s top priorities in the area: economic development and firm control of the Uighurs. But among the most revealing documents in the leaked papers are two that describe Mr. Wang’s downfall — an 11-page report summarizing the party’s internal investigation into his actions, and the text of a 15-page confession that he may have given under duress. [...] When the mass detentions began, Mr. Wang did as he was told at first and appeared to embrace the task with zeal. He built two sprawling new detention facilities, including one as big as 50 basketball courts, and herded 20,000 people into them. [...] But privately, Mr. Wang had misgivings, according to the confession that he later signed, which would have been carefully vetted by the party. [...] Quietly, he ordered the release of more than 7,000 camp inmates — an act of defiance for which he would be detained, stripped of power and prosecuted.

The official reasoning carried by PRC media for Wang's abrupt fall was corruption and disobeying Party policy on Xinjiang, without many specifics. Before we move on, some other important things to note from those documents:

  • The government made deliberate efforts to increase Han immigration to the area where Wang was serving
  • Wang thought there was "nothing wrong with having a Quran at home and encourag[ed] party officials to read it to better understand Uighur traditions," apparently a massive no-no
  • "Mr. Wang felt the orders left no room for moderation and would poison ethnic relations in the county"
  • Wang was not the only official punished for perceived moderation or reluctance

Overall, the best way to understand the most important upshots is to read the article yourself.

The rest of this section is probably useful to you only if you doubt the authenticity of the documents.

The Chinese government did not deny the documents' authenticity

The Chinese government was evidently caught off-guard by the leak, as evidenced by the lack of a coherent media counter-strategy following their publication. In fairness, the government only really had Sunday the 17th to assess the situation. The first official reaction came through the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Monday, November 18th press conference (English/Chinese). Spokesman Geng Shuang responded to the question about the leaks by first recounting the mass reeducation program's merits, the dangers of terrorism in Xinjiang, and the many supporters it has apparently has worldwide abroad.

Remarkably, Geng did not appear to deny the authenticity of the documents, but rather accused NYT of taking the documents out of context to stitch together a dishonest narrative:

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The New York Times is completely deaf and blind to all those facts. What's worse, it used clumsy patchwork and distortion to hype up the so-called "internal documents" and smear China's counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts. What are they up to?

The translation of "distortion" is not very clear here, in my opinion—the Chinese phrase (断章取义) more accurately means "to take out of context," suggesting the Ministry of Foreign Affairs did not have any issues with the authenticity per se. (A loose translation of a definition given through Cilin: "Only taking fragments of another's words or speech without regard for the whole and its original meaning.") Curiously, however, the government of Xinjiang said on the same day that the documents were fabricated, though it did not specify which parts.

There does not seem to have been a consistent stance. Less than a week later, on November 25th, the Chinese Embassy to Spain (link, in Chinese) condemned the translation and publication of some of NYT's reporting in El País, but again, did not challenge the documents' authenticity, instead continuing along the lines set by Geng Shuang—highlighting China's successes and condemning Western media's desire to hype up negative news about China and ignorance of positives of reeducation. This seemed to be the standard response, similarly adopted by Global Times' Chinese opinion pieces carried in China Daily (link, in Chinese), for instance.

The very same day, in fact, Geng Shuang again declined to directly challenge the authenticity of the documents in the face of a pointed question from the press (English link):

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Q: The Chinese Embassy in London said the internal documents regarding Xinjiang published by media on Sunday were pure fabrication and fake news. Does the Foreign Ministry have any explanation or comment on why 17 different media outlets would publish the same so-called fake news on Xinjiang? A: I responded to questions regarding so-called "internal documents" hyped up by the New York Times last week. Let me reiterate our position that Xinjiang affairs are China's internal affairs. Certain media are trying to smear China's counter-terrorism and de-radicalization efforts in Xinjiang by despicably hyping up Xinjiang-related issues, but their attempts will not succeed. Stability, ethnic solidarity and harmony in Xinjiang is the best response to such disinformation.

What's interesting here is that it seems Geng Shuang did not understand the reporter's question. The 25th was a Monday, and the day before that, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists published a separate cache of documents (discussed in the next section), but Geng either didn't recognize that or refused to speak on it altogether and pivoted to the NYT stuff. (The PRC Embassy to London had apparently called the documents "fake news.")

Regardless of which it is referring to, to head off an annoying counterargument: at best you might extricate from the phrase "so-called" that the Ministry is denying the documents' authenticity somehow. In English, "so-called" does often connote the idea that a specific term is applied erroneously or deceptively. Take the following sentence: "My so-called friends Jessica and Brad didn't retweet my blog post, so I faxed pictures of them getting their stomachs pumped after last year's Easter Sunday alcoholic punch incident to their grandparents."

Here, the implication is clear. Jessica and Brad are not my friends.

This does not totally track with the usage of the term in Chinese, however, where suowei often takes a slightly different, derogatory meaning. Take this headline (in Chinese) from Xinhua: "MFA Publishes Statement on the Passing and Signing of America's So-called '2020 Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act.'" Clearly, they're not denying the existence of the Act; they're making clear they find it detestable. (Suowei, unlike English, can have a neutral connotation as well, like when defining a new term, sort of like "what is called _____ refers to...")

No, the documents are not forgeries translated from English

But, of course, there's always someone on Twitter willing to go the extra mile to do PR work, whether it's Elon Musk's legions of reply guys, liberals deeply offended when Democrats are criticized over things like drone strikes, or, in this case, Chinese nationalists/Stalinists eager to defend any and all policy measures enacted by the Chinese government without question. Enter this thing, which quickly floated around pro-China Twitter, r/Sino, and elsewhere:

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If you don't read Chinese, this is one of the first pages displayed by NYT with highlighted language errors and idiosyncrasies that one would not expect from a native speaker. The conclusion, of course, is the the documents were fakes translated from English. This argument does not hold up well under scrutiny; in fact, I think the obvious translation actually bolsters the credibility of the leaks.

Expand this for frivolous linguistic notes if you are curious about the language error stuff

The markup is accurate in the sense that it does point out a high frequency of ungrammatical or unidiomatic utterances, more than enough to reasonably say the document was not produced by an educated native speaker of Mandarin.

On a side note, though, not all the errors it highlights are particularly persuasive. For instance, 甚至包括你 as 'including you' does indeed have an English ring to it. Nevertheless, about five seconds of Googling shows that it also shows up in plenty of natively written contexts, e.g. this article in Xinhua, China's flagship state media outlet. Xinhua also verbatim published another supposed error—不同程度的受到……影响 'to varying degrees were influenced by...'—in this article. So has the Beijing Traffic Bureau, apparently. What gives?

To vastly oversimplify: Research suggests that as the formal lingua franca of global commerce and diplomacy, English tends to mildly influence grammatical/phrasing patterns among non-native speakers. This phenomenon of "Englishization" has been documented in academic contexts, mostly for Taiwanese Mandarin, e.g. Hsu 1994 and Gao 2005 (I've read more than a single page of only one of those two but I'm still citing both to look more learnèd). This kind of alarmist article from China Daily (in Chinese) also gives a bunch of examples.

Also, it is not a given that these errors sound necessarily English. What if they were French? Russian? They sound foreign, but as noted right above, some of the things specifically annotated as "English sounding" are still written and published by native speakers in prestigious media outlets.

Why only one document?

Recall that the Xinjiang Papers is a set of multiple documents, including speeches from Party leaders, papers from an internal Party investigation, and the one showcased here: "Turpan City Concentrated Education Training School Students' Children Q&A Strategy" (吐鲁番市集中教育培训学校学员子女问答策略). This is an important thing to note—the allegation of English translation is only ever made against the pages from the Turpan Q&A document, because the Chinese in the rest of the documents is perfectly idiomatic, if a bit stuffy and bureaucratic. In fact, the Turpan Q&A is actually a subset of a single document, an attachment to an official Party memo. Notice that in the image above, the first page of annotations are on page 6. That's because the first five pages—the policy document to which it was attached—are, again, written in perfectly decent Mandarin.

It should be noted that the Turpan Q&A, then, is not an official document in the sense that it is not a formal circular that the Party uses to communicate, for which there are rigid rules about formatting, style, etc. (Here's an existentially, annihilatingly boring 204-page book on such rules, if you're curious.) This is more like a memo in that it does not carry the weight of Party policy, but is rather the apparent result of cadres attempting to carry out a policy.

Specifically, the Turpan Q&A is supposed to help cadres when visiting families of the detained for "check ups" and the like. If you're a teenager and you come home to find one of your parents gone, you'd probably have some questions, too! Luckily, the Turpan Communist Party has some answers for you, roughly translated below (with summaries of the answers; a full translation by the Times can be found here):

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1. Where is my relative/s [Chinese does not mark singular or plural in nouns]? [Answer: They're at a study facility set up by the government. Free rent and food!] 2. Why does my relative need to go study? [Answer: They've been influenced by radical extremism and they might harm "themselves, your family, relatives, friends, or even you".] 3. My relative only listened or watched violent terrorist audio or video once, or only participated in illegal tabligh ["propagation of faith" per Oxford Dict. of Islam] once. We've recognized our mistakes and won't do anything illegal [again], so is it okay if they don't go study? [Answer: No.] 4. Since it's training, why can't they regularly return home? [Answer: No—think of it like SARS. You can't let them come home too early.] 5. Did they commit a crime? Will they be sentenced? [Answer: No and no.] 6. When will my family member graduate and leave the school? [Answer: When they're cured.] 7. Is my family member a bad person now? After they come out, will they be discriminated against and be treated differently? [Answer: No, there will be no discrimination!] 8. Can my family member apply for leave to come see me? [Answer: No.] 9. Can a civil servant guarantee that my family will be allowed out? [Answer: No.] 10. My family member has gone to study, we have 10 mu [approx. 1.65 acres] of land, there's no one to do the planting, and what am I supposed to do if I can't afford tuition for school? [Answer: We'll send you grain and stuff.]

How can you assume it's translated from English?

In reality, it was more likely translated from Uyghur.

This document is designed for interaction with detainees' families, who are going to be overwhelmingly—you guessed it!—Uyghur. In all likelihood, then, it was written in Uyghur by Uyghur cadres and translated into Chinese. Chinese speakers of Uyghur are far fewer than Uyghur speakers of Chinese, so this translator would almost certainly be Uyghur.

Amusingly, I noticed this summer that Chines state media seems to imply translation is a major part of at least some Uyghur cadres' work. In a video produced by Xinhua documenting how idyllic life is in Xinjiang, we see, for instance, a lovely Uyghur cadre asked to do this:

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Consider also that the New York Times has plenty of native Chinese speakers. It literally has an entire Chinese branch that publishes only in Mandarin. So it also seems unlikely the Times would have fabricated something so shoddy, right? And surely you know the CIA has plenty of linguists who would be able to do so as well. Perhaps it was just some nefarious Uyghur activists who, for some reason, would first write something in English, their third language if they know Mandarin as well?

And, again, the linguistic idiosyncrasies that supposedly show the entire cache to be faked are only present in the pages from the Turpan Q&A document. Why would a source fabricating these documents only translate one from English so sloppily? I guess they hired different translators. And all of them, except for one, were native Chinese speakers. And that one non-native speaker translated the exact portion of the hoax—no more, no less—that would be most likely originally written by Uyghur cadres.

Clearly, the more logical conclusion is not that these documents were faked—it's that they were written by Uyghur cadres and translated into Chinese for non-Uyghur-speaking cadres tasked with interacting with families of the detained. The conspiracy theory that the New York Times' Xinjiang Papers were fabricated has neither linguistic basis nor even rhetorical support from the national organs of the Chinese government. If you choose to believe they're faked, you're doing so against the preponderance of evidence.

Some other spurious objections

On policy details from @ChineseBot2B:

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The definition of three forces is indeed "terrorism, separatism, and extremism" (对恐怖主义、分裂主义、极端主义), but like many slogans, it gets repeated ad nauseam and apparently people forget the specifics. It's arguably an error, but it's not a rare one. (And remember that the pages at question are a less formal memo anyways.) Other anti-China agents planted by the CIA to discredit the CCP mistaken individuals include:

Next, on document formatting from the brilliant @thinking_panda:

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Basically: the Party-state style guide says that the word "attachment" should be in heiti (sort of like sans serif, see Wikipedia) font at the top of an attachment. Something something CIA. I strongly suspect that screenshot taking things out of context, but let's assume it's not.

This one is pretty simple: the end of the NYT article contains a disclaimer: "To omit identifying markings, these documents have been retyped to resemble the originals." (This would actually explain why they didn't post every single page—they only retyped the ones they were going to quote or otherwise highlight in the article.)

It takes like 90 seconds of Googling to find an official document from a high-ranked government organ—the Guangdong Development and Reform Commission—that doesn't even follow this rule, so I question the source the good Panda is citing. See below:

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Also, uh, as far as I can tell, the word 'attachment' at the top of the NYT page is already sans serif. (I think maybe what happened is that our Panda was a bit overeager and misread the document to say that all of an attachment should be in sans serif font. Again, look above to see how obviously wrong that is.)

The China Cables

On Sunday, November 24, 2019—a week after the Times' leaks—the "China Cables" were revealed by the International Consortium for Investigative Journalism, the organization most well known for its publication of the Panama Papers. If you're a denialist rooting around here for something to tweet about how all my blog just relies on US propaganda, for your convenience, you can find a list of ICIJ's disclosed donors here. If any of them have even the faintest ties to the US government, I'm sure you'll tell me all about it.

The mostly confidential documents are all translated into English and available for anyone to see online, but frankly, the translations have quite a few errors, some of which are consequential (e.g. translating 'people who have been detained (previously)' as 'people who are detained').

ICIJ states it received these files by way of Uyghur exiles, a probable enough statement. ICIJ further states it confirmed the authenticity of these cables by consulting "James Mulvenon, vice-president of Defense Group Inc, Adrian Zenz, ... and several intelligence sources who cannot be identified." The signature of Zhu Hailun, head of Xinjiang’s Political and Legal Affairs Commission, was also on the documents.

The following are some highlights and analysis from each of the documents, based on ICIJ's English translation but modified to correct errors.

Political and Legal Affairs notice

This eight-page document, divided into 25 points referenced in parentheses below, is a notice disseminated by the Xinjiang CCP Political and Legal Affairs Committee titled "Opinions on further strengthening and standardizing vocational education and training centers work". (It appears to be longer, but the scan cuts off at the eighth page.) The document is more evidence that the official narrative constructed by China about the camps is false; "vocational education and training center" is a euphemism. Some takeaways:

  • These camps are not benign schools. They are securitized facilities designed for involuntary detention. (As a reminder, Chinese state media and state-sponsored tours of select facilities claim that people in the camps are there voluntarily.)
    • "Police are strictly forbidden from entering student areas with guns, and there must never be escapes, troublemaking, attacks on staff, abnormal deaths, food safety incidents or major epidemics, and it must be ensured that the training centers are absolutely safe and free of risk." (1)
    • "Prevent escapes. Maintain zone separation and individual unit management, and improve the installation of front gate police stations, security guard duty rooms, high guard posts, security guard posts and patrol routes, etc. Perfect peripheral isolation, internal separation, protective defenses, safe passageways and other facilities and equipment, and ensure that security instruments, security equipment, video surveillance, one-button alarms and other such devices are in place and functioning." (2)
  • Their primary purpose is not vocational training. The document makes passing mention of "skills" education, focusing primarily on Mandarin (points 8, 10), ideology (11), manners (12), and education of relatives (13).
    • In fact, any vocational training appears to be a separate process from reeducation. "All students who have completed training will be sent to vocational skills improvement class for intensive skills training for a school term of 3 to 6 months. All prefectures should set up special places and special facilities in order to create the environment for trainees to receive intensive training." (19)
  • The camps are tightly controlled and do not allow detainees significant autonomy.
    • "The trainee's studies, life, and activity management system should be formulated in detail, and the students should have a fixed bed position, fixed queue position, fixed classroom seat, and fixed station during skills work, and it is strictly forbidden for this to be changed. Strengthen the student's daily life behavior norms, and implement behavioral norms and discipline requirements for getting up, roll call, washing, going to the toilet, organizing and housekeeping, eating, studying, sleeping, closing the door and so forth." (15)
  • Students are monitored after their release.
    • "Follow-up mentorship. Strengthen the work of follow-up mentorship for students., all local grassroots organizations are responsible for follow-up mentorship, including police stations and the judicial office. Students must not leave their line of sight for one year and [students'] performance should be ascertained in a timely manner." (21)
  • And, of course, the camps must be kept secret.
    • "Maintain strict secrecy. Vocational education and training centers are highly political and sensitive. Strengthen staff consciousness on confidentiality, and strictly implement political discipline and confidentiality discipline. Strictly forbid phones, recorders and other recording equipment from being brought onto the premises; pictures must not be carelessly posted online." (25)

VICE also received a copy of this document, publishing an article about it the same day as ICIJ. In VICE's words, "The document is believed to have been leaked by an official working for the Chinese government in Xinjiang. It was sent by this official to a VICE News source on the situation in Xinjiang who lives outside the country. The official said the world needed to see the document, and expressed their desire for an end to the difficult times facing Uighurs, a Muslim ethnic minority being sent to the camps." Unlike ICIJ, which shows redacted copies, VICE chose to retype the documents. In only shows three of the eight pages in its article.

IJOP bulletins

These bulletins are summaries of data gathered from the Integrated Joint Operations Platform (体化联合作战平台), IJOP. IJOP is a surveillance analytics system that includes a phone app used by authorities in Xinjiang. Human Rights Watch in 2019 published a report on IJOP after receiving a phone with a version installed, finding that it serves "three broad functions: collecting personal information, reporting on activities or circumstances deemed suspicious, and prompting investigations of people the system flags as problematic."

Bulletin #2 is from June 16, 2017. It details IJOP's location of over one thousand people from Xinjiang who have obtained dual nationality and have applied for a reentry visa into China, as well several thousand from Xinjiang who are trying to travel abroad or who already have. These people are all to be subjected to serious scrutiny. IJOP identified:

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4,341 people who have obtained valid documentation in our embassies and consulates abroad... [and] 1707 people who have not yet left the country. Personal identification verification should be done one by one. For those still outside the country for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, the border control inspection will be carried out by hand to ensure that they are arrested the moment they cross the border. For those who have entered the country and for whom suspected terrorism cannot be ruled out, they should first be placed into concentrated education and training for investigation.

Bulletin #9 (June 21) appears to target people who have established unspecified "accounts" that have been shut down three times. From context, it appears these might be referring to online or telecommunications accounts. In China, online accounts are linked to one's phone number, which are in turn linked to one's national ID and thus household registration. The second section of the document describes a near complete halt of communication with the outside world:

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through the strengthening of network blocks, the removal of harmful software, the adjustment of identification models and the strengthening of strict measures, we have effectively curbed domestic-foreign communications. Daily domestic-foreign communication has dropped to less than 10 people.

Bulletin #14 (June 25) gives detention numbers in the English translation but they're redacted in the Chinese document. I've reached out to ICIJ to see if that's an error on their end, but until then I am going to ignore this one.

Bulletin #20 (June 29) discusses the use of Zapya, a peer-to-peer file sharing application, by imams not officially approved by the government, noting the number of people—well into the tens of thousands—subsequently identified and flagged by IJOP.

Qakilik court document

This is the only document of the bunch not technically classified, though court judgments like this from Xinjiang are not generally viewable by outsiders. It is also the only one written in Uyghur; I am unable to double-check translations for inconsistencies or errors.

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During the trial it became clear that in December 2016, during the work of Qakilik [County's] 36th corps, No. 315 National Highway, at the temporary worker quarters of the Sandstone Factory, he incited extremist religious thoughts in his colleagues and others such as: Do not say dirty words, do not watch porn or you will become a kafir (non-believer), if you don’t pray and watch porn, your soul will not be clean for 40 days and God will not accept your prayers. If you eat without praying, you will become a kafir. If you do not pray, you will be in hell and God will not forgive you. All people who do not pray are Han Chinese kafirs. You cannot eat food from women who do not pray. You cannot eat food from people who smoke and drink alcohol.

Clearly, a man who needs a serious visit to the HR reps, if not suspension or dismissal. The defendant admitted to his errors and asked for leniency. The court—composed of three Uyghur judges, it should be noted—convicted him of inciting ethnic hatred and ethnic discrimination and sentenced him to 10 years in prison in June 2018.