The Xinjiang Papers

A special thanks to the Brandolini Institute of Critical Media Studies for their generous funding of this blog post. And, of course, the CIA and National Endowment for Democracy, who are paying me to smear China. (November 2020)

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 post 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 publication, as evidenced by the lack of a coherent media counterstrategy following its publication. In fairness, it only really had Sunday the 17th to assess the situation (Beijing is, after all, 13 hours ahead of NYC). 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 leak 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? 《纽约时报》不仅对上述事实闭目塞听,甚至用移花接木、断章取义的拙劣手法炒作所谓“内部文件”,诬蔑抹黑中国新疆的反恐和去极端化努力,其居心何在?

The translation of "distortion" is not very clear here, in my opinion—the Chinese phrase (断章取义) mostly directly 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.

This did not seem to be 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, 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 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. They are posing bastards.

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, highlighting a new term, e.g., when explaining something like "the so-called Electoral College is not an American invention.")

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 that people criticize Democrats over things like drone strikes, or, in this case, Chinese nationalists eager to defend China's policies.

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.

Why only one document?

Recall that the Xinjiang Papers is a set of multiple documents, including speeches from Party leaders, internal Party investigations, 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 accusation of English translation is only ever made against the pages from the Turpan Q&A document, to my knowledge. In fact, the Turpan Q&A is actually a subset of a single document; it's 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 written in perfectly normal 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 or the like, but is rather the apparent result of cadres attempting to carry out 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 Communist Party has some answers for your questions, translated below (with summaries of the answers):

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1. Where is my relative? [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.]

(You can view these and other pages by zooming in on the small images listed at the top of the NYT article, which are surprisingly high-def. A full transcription is available here, too.)

How can you assume it's translated from English?

In reality, it was probably 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 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.

P.S. Some other spurious claims

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:

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 this is 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.)

"But!"—screams the astute Marxist-Leninist—"The Times is nothing but imperialist propaganda, so they're obviously just lying!"

I scream back: "Please reconsider this post and the evidence in totality, and then ponder your objection in light of Occam's Razor!"

And then I scream back again: "Actually lmfao come back here you little whelp, you don't even need to do that! It took like 90 seconds of Googling to find an official document from a high-ranked organ—the Guangdong Development and Reform Commission—that doesn't even follow that rule!"

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Then I scream back a third time: "looool wait yo... the word 'attachment' at the top of the NYT page is already sans serif. Your objection is three-dimensionally wrong and I'm deeply embarrassed for you!"

(I think maybe what happened is that the brilliant 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 astute Marxist-Leninist does not reply, but simply takes out their phone and proceeds to QT me with the phrase "check out what this white supremacist DC analyst thinks 🤣🤣🤣" or something similarly asinine.