Missing vs. “Disappeared”: NYT Translation on Detained Chinese Citizens Blurs the Line

In Few Clues in Chinese Editor’s Detention, Didi Kirsten Tatlow reports on the recent arrest and detention of Caixin Media editor Xu Xiao (徐晓) and NGO staffer Liu Jianshu (柳建树).

Both went missing for at least five days before it was learned that they had been arrested and are now inside Beijing Number 1 Detention Center.

Here is how Tatlow reported on these events:

No one has been allowed to see Ms. Xu since she was taken into custody on Nov. 26. But she isn’t the only one to suddenly disappear recently. Also on that day, Liu Jianshu, 28, an N.G.O worker and movie enthusiast, was “disappeared,” his wife, Zhao Sile said on Wednesday.


Readers fluent in Chinese will note that Liu simply “disappeared,” in the neutral sense of “went missing,” while Tatlow’s original implies a “forced disappearance,” placing him in the now-infamous category of “desaparecidos” coined during Argentina’s “Dirty War.”

Tatlow’s use of “disappeared” here is questionable, since the term — strictly speaking — refers to a person who has been abducted or imprisoned, “followed by a refusal to acknowledge the person’s fate and whereabouts, with the intent of placing the victim outside the protection of the law.” (Wikipedia) She doesn’t say how “friends and family” came to learn of Xu Xiao’s current location, so we don’t know if the Chinese authorities intentionally released this information.

Whatever the case, Tatlow has chosen an emotive, political term — “disappeared.” One would therefore expect the Chinese to read “被失踪,” a phrase created several years ago and frequently seen on (uncensored) parts of the Chinese-language Internet.

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