- The Washington Times - Monday, April 16, 2001

Love, as in "love is never having to say youre sorry," is one sappy cliche. Its harmless enough as a staple of the language of puppy love, but big-dog love can require an apology to a loved one when youre wrong and often when youre right. You could ask Cupid.
But not in the give-and-take between foreign countries, where love never has anything to do with it. Nevertheless, diplomacy sometimes requires the sensitivity and subterfuge of the language of love. Finding the delicate balance, as in relationships between men and women, is the game of diplomacy.
Some conservatives thought George W. Bush should have used tougher language in the initial stages of the crisis on Hainan Island by calling our pilots "hostages." Many liberals thought he was too tough when he said this accident could undermine our hopes for a "productive relationship."
The speculation quickly changed from who would say what, and when, to something like "he said, he said." The advantage went to whoever got to write the subtitles.
The Chinese quibble endlessly over words, and which shade of purple to say them in. Did the president express enough grief over the death of the Chinese pilot? Was he "feichang wanxi" (very sorrowful) or merely "feichang bao qian" (very sorry)? Imagine the misery of the translator assigned to convert the tortured syntax of George Bush into "feichang" anything. We should be grateful we have a laconic president who doesnt make a big deal over feeling anothers pain. (Whatever Bill Clinton would have said, and he would have said a lot, every hour on the hour, no one could have translated it into two or three Chinese words.)
But how refreshing to get a lesson in the nuances of language, and an exercise in the kind of critical thinking that extends beyond what the meaning of the word "is" is. An imaginative teacher could use this linguistic crossfire to stress the complexities and subtleties of language and the different ways language reflects different cultures.
Few scholars any longer study rhetoric, and as a result most of us have a limited knowledge of the infinite shades of gray (or purple) in the art of persuasion and translation. Words, which actually have precise meanings, are often flung about with abandon, even by people who regard themselves as educated. But every language offers a different set of rhetorical possibilities, and none are more formidable than the languages of China. Media Studies Journal, which examines the media and its impact on society, devotes an entire issue to the specific difficulties in reporting about China.
With 4,000 years of civilization, China has consistently produced leaders and advisers who seem especially artful in using language to their advantage, understanding all too well that cruel and brutal rule must be "glossed over with a soft veneer," writes Dai Qing, a Chinese dissident and onetime reporter for a Chinese daily.
The Chinese specialize in a technique which they euphemistically call "guiding public opinion." What they mean is "censorship." Its the language equivalent of "saving face" and its what the Chinese government tried to impose on the United States with demands for an "apology."
In China, the government speaks to a reporter in clear and precise language about how that reporter should approach his story. Explains Dai Qing: " 'Say it this way and not that, for no other position shall be tolerated, or better yet, 'Saying it this way is to your advantage, for if you insist on the opposite, well, then just lets wait and see. "
This approach sets the parameters for how the Chinese report a story to their own people. "Sorry" was the word they had to have us say so they could tell their people that the United States had apologized. It was less important what we apologized for than that we used a word the government could manipulate. So the United States said it was "very sorry that the entering of Chinas air space and landing did not have verbal clearance."
The Chinese wanted us to accept the blame for the collision, but President Bush finally made them understand they werent going to get that. Stalling became counterproductive and the Chinese government began to worry that the situation could spin out of control.
Wisdom, Confucius might say, is knowing when to cut bait, especially when youve got other fish to fry.

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