- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 11, 2001

BEIJING Professional help in the standoff over 24 U.S. military fliers is only a phone call away, if the Bush administration wants to take advantage of it. Chinese "apology companies" are cleaning up in several Chinese cities by saying sorry on behalf of clients too hidebound by culture and "face" to apologize in person or in full.
These "emissaries of regrets," who promise to smooth the most ruffled feathers, have prospered because of an Asian preoccupation with full, formal apologies such as China is demanding over the aerial collision near Hainan Island that destroyed a Chinese jet fighter and forced a U.S. Navy surveillance plane to crash-land in China.
The incident is seen by many Chinese as a grave affront to their national dignity, yet apologizing remains a far from straightforward affair in China and most of East Asia.
While Chinese believe foreigners say "sorry" so often as to render it meaningless, apologies are best avoided in China, as their giving and acceptance require best-concealed expressions of emotion, and are complicated by issues of face.
Some Chinese scholars argue that China still lacks a proper apology culture, hence the success of the apology companies.
Clients of the Tianjin Apology and Gift Center, in the busy trading city of Tianjin, one hour's drive from Beijing, include estranged lovers, former business partners and families riven by conflict between generations.
For just $2.50 to $3 per apology, any remorseful soul can seek redemption, without the torment of doing it oneself, and the terrible risk of losing face by having one's apology refused.
The professional apologizers are mostly middle-aged intellectuals, with backgrounds in law and education, good verbal skills and an interest in psychology.
As the pace of life and business speeds up in China's cities, many mental health experts decry the lack of help available to ease the stress and pressure that can create conflicts, and the need for apologies.
Psychological counseling may be a respected profession in the United States, but China lags far behind. The country only has 2.4 psychologists per million of population, compared to 550 per million in the United States.
At the Tianjin Apology and Gift Center, and a counterpart in Xian, clients can beat their frustration out of their system by attacking a mannequin with a plastic mallet.
There is no reason to believe the Chinese authorities in Hainan are about to behave similarly with the 24 Americans who have been held for more than 10 days in a guesthouse at the air base where they crash-landed.
The negotiations for their release reportedly are focused on finding a word or words that will sound like a full apology to the Chinese but allow the United States to avoid anything that sounds like an admission of wrongdoing.
"Is there a word between regret and apologize?" asked social scientist Lu Jianhua in Beijing.
"The political issue has almost become a linguistic one. Compensation for the crashed plane is a small matter in comparison to the apology… . China cannot back down now, or the government will lose face and credibility in the eyes of the people," he said.
President Bush has voiced his "regret," as has Secretary of State Colin Powell, but to Chinese ears this "yihan" rings hollow, insincere, and above all, guilt-free, compared to the required kowtow of a fully fledged "daoqian" or apology.
Diplomats and linguists from both countries must battle through to a middle ground as they struggle to draft a joint "letter of understanding," an important exchange of their conflicting accounts of the collision, that may pave the way toward resolution.
"There are fundamental cultural differences between American and Chinese people," suggested a former strategic analyst with the People's Liberation Army.
"The Americans start from the law to discuss problems. But the Chinese are not so legalistic. They take an emotional stand. 'How come your military plane flew all the way to China and crashed into our plane?' they ask."

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