The crew of the damaged U.S. spy plane stranded on a Chinese island is either being held "hostage" in China or it's not, depending on one's point of view.

"It's in the eye of the beholder," said James M. Lindsay, a foreign policy expert at the Brookings Institution. "But the longer this goes on, the more people are going to see the crew as hostages pure and simple."

The Bush administration is refusing to use the word. President Bush has made clear that he wants to avoid inflaming opinions domestically or in China as the administration works to solve a military problem-turned-diplomatic standoff.

"From day one, the president's focus has been creating an environment that helps bring our men and women home, ... and he has directed his staff to keep it in that environment," White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday — Day 9 of the crew's detention by Chinese officials.

"Inflammatory words do not help," he said.

Analysts say the Bush tactic is standard diplomatic strategy. It also is designed to keep Americans from pressing for stronger U.S. action.

"You can't begrudge the Bush administration for trying, ... for wanting to keep emotions down," Lindsay said. "That's why we have diplomats — they're the manners police for international relations."

The 21 men and three women have been held since their Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese jet fighter collided over the South China Sea early April 1 and the U.S. aircraft limped to a landing on China's Hainan island.

Chinese officials haven't allowed them to contact their families but handed over copies of e-mails sent from home.

They didn't allow American diplomats to see the crew members for days after their emergency landing. And when access finally was allowed, Chinese officials dictated when American diplomats could see the crew, for how long, what they could talk about.

A USA Today-CNN-Gallup Poll released Tuesday said 55 percent of Americans considered the plane's crew to be hostages and 54 percent said the United States should not give in to Beijing's demand for an apology. The April 6-8 poll of 1,025 adults had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

Asked whether the crew members were hostages, national security adviser Condoleezza Rice said over the weekend: "Our crewmen and -women are being detained, but we have said to the Chinese the important thing is to get them out.

"I'm not going to characterize beyond that, except to say that it is time to resolve this situation and to move on," Rice said.

"They're being detained, and I wouldn't use the term `hostage' yet," Sen. Carl Levin, D-Mich., agreed in an appearance on CNN.

Foreign relations experts outside the government say the administration has little choice but to take this public position.

"As a diplomat, I think the less strong our terminology, the better off we all are for the short term," said Bruce Laingen, president of the American Academy of Diplomacy and a former hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Iran.

"But having said that, they clearly are being held hostage to something, ... to Chinese insistence that we do x, y, z," said Laingen, chief of mission in 1979 at the embassy in Tehran when he and 51 other Americans were taken hostage and held for 444 days.

Laingen said that as each day goes by, "They are increasingly hostages, and they must feel that way. Their families feel that way even more."

For now, there's no shortage of people who agree with the administration.

"They aren't hostages. It's just a big mistake," said Tom Prasada-Rao, 42, originally of India, now of Takoma Park, Md. "It's little boys playing war games. They should just let go and apologize."

"They aren't hostages, but it's time for them to come home," said Juanita Moore, 78, of Washington.

On the other hand, some relatives of the crew began using the word hostage days ago.

Robert Blocher, father of a crew member, said his son, Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Steven Blocher, of Charlotte, N.C., told him when they last talked that the assignment on the spy plane was more dangerous than he first thought.

"His biggest fear was being taken hostage," Blocher said last week.

A cousin of Navy Lt. Marcia Sonon of Lenhartsville, Pa., one of the three women on the crew, said the family found it reassuring last week to see a photo of Sonon.

"I'm sorry that people are over there hostage, but I don't think we should give in," the cousin, Michael Sonon, said on the subject of whether the United States should apologize.

James Reardon-Anderson, chairman of the faculty for Georgetown University's School of Foreign Service, agreed that it's "probably now fair to call them hostages."

He said he thought the standoff would be resolved by Easter, but cautioned, "If they can't, then you've got a hostage crisis" with people counting the days as they did in the Iran hostage case.

Lindsay said the average American likely believes "if it walks like a hostage, and quacks like a hostage, it is a hostage." But that logic might not work "if you're president," he said.

"George Bush's first obligation is not fidelity to the English language," Lindsay said. "It's to secure the release of those men and women."