Published January 13, 2015
Regret is nice. Sorry is better. But it's not quite what China is looking for.
Beijing insists it will get an apology, and nothing less, for the collision between one of its jet fighters and a U.S. spy plane.
The difference is more than just words to Chinese leaders, and could affect just how long a U.S. air crew is held on an island in the South China Sea.
Officials laying out Beijing's demands use the Chinese word "daoqian" — a formal apology that means the speaker accepts blame.
Washington has refused, saying it doesn't see why it should apologize for the April 1 collision, which it says was probably an accident.
U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell got the blame ball rolling last Wednesday, expressing "regret" over the loss of the Chinese plane.
A Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman welcomed that as a "step in the right direction." But he insisted on a formal "daoqian" — pronounced dow-CHEE-YEN.
U.S. diplomats at that point had met the air crew just once. The spokesman suggested that they might not be allowed to do so again until Washington used that word, though China has since allowed three more visits.
Then, on Thursday, President George W. Bush himself expressed "regret."
The official Xinhua News Agency translated Bush's expression as "yihan" — a term for regret but a mild, ambiguous one.
"It can even be used when the other person is the one who has done wrong," said Perry Link, a professor of Chinese at Princeton University. "I can see why, translated that way, it wouldn't cut any ice with the Chinese."
Powell added this weekend that "we are sorry that a life was lost." But he pointedly refused an apology.
China already had written to Powell rejecting the American expressions as inadequate and insisting on its apology.
Diplomats from the two countries are said to be struggling over the wording of a letter that they hope will settle the impasse.
They hope to arrive at phrasing that China can portray as an apology but that Washington can say doesn't admit guilt.
"Daoqian" means literally "I speak of my failure."
A similar term is "baoqian," which means "I report my failure," and often is translated as "sorry" — as in "I'm sorry I'm late." Or there is "duibuqi," often translated as "pardon me."
The difference might seem academic. But Bush and his advisers appear to understand that to China, an apology carries obligations, such as acquiescing to demands to stop surveillance flights near its coast.
The collision took place 60 miles from the Chinese coast, in international airspace. China says that while foreign planes have a right to fly there, they shouldn't conduct surveillance.
After the NATO bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia in 1999, Washington apologized repeatedly to China.
In this case, said Link, "that word would imply that this flight was wrong, which would have direct implications for guarding the Chinese coast and relations over Taiwan."
The Chinese language itself won't make the task of diplomats any easier in trying to find phrasing that both Washington and Beijing can accept.
Chinese is a precise tongue ill-suited to diplomatic vagueness. Translators complain of the difficulty of using it to portray English euphemisms and their calculated lack of meaning.
And, like its range of words for "sorry," Chinese has multiple terms with different shades of meaning for objects that English-speakers group together using the same word.
A "president" in English can be the leader of a company, university or nation, while in Chinese each post demands a different title.
An apology extracted with 24 Americans in captivity might be viewed in the West as less than sincere and carry few obligations.
But in China, apologies under duress have been a key element to legal and moral life since long before the communists came to power.
"One establishes right and wrong by having someone make a formal apology, often in writing," Link said. "This is still very much alive."