Diplomacy hinges on nuances.
In this case, the release of the US Navy crew - but not the plane - was made palatable in China through linguistic hair-splitting.
The US apology - of sorts - that China needed to save face and bring the standoff to a close was announced in the Chinese press yesterday: "Secretary Powell ... 'feels sorry' " stated a banner Page 1 headline in Beijing Youth Daily.
US Secretary of State Colin Powell's "sorry," issued Sunday, was initially interpreted as mild "regret" and not the level of apology China sought. There are four basic degrees of apology in Chinese. But by yesterday, the influential Beijing paper translated America's top diplomat's words as bao qian - a second-level apology officially acknowledged for the first time.
After the 11-day roller-coaster ride of diplomacy, near apologies, demands, and a borderline international crisis - what allowed the US and China to reach a solution is a partial US apology that its EP-3 surveillance aircraft entered Chinese airspace and landed without a verbal agreement.
US officials did not accept responsibility for the air collision itself - a dispute that is likely to carry on for some time. Moreover, the letter from US Ambassador to China Joseph Prueher to Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan leaves the emergency landing of the EP-3 as a misunderstanding. The US says it sent a "Mayday" signal; China says it did not receive that communication.
Still, Beijing can accept and characterize here Ambassador Prueher's letter as an apology. The letter also expresses sorrow to China and the Chinese pilot's family for their loss. On April 18, both sides will meet to discuss differences.
Beijing's announcement came with little warning. For days, and despite various expressions of sorrow and regret by the US president and top officials, China publicly characterized the US as not "cooperative" enough; it began to seem that freedom for the 24 detainees would await the return next week from South America of Chinese President Jiang Zemin.
China, however, apparently calculating that a set of fast-moving factors could culminate in less sympathy abroad, and a potentially harmful toll on China's interests, decided to end the affair.
Factors mentioned by experts here include negative US and world opinion, a more detailed airing of the two different versions of events above the South China Sea on April 1, potential fraying of business ties, and an overall hostile relationship with the new Bush administration that would not forever be able to separate the air incident from such decisions as support of an Olympics bid, WTO membership, and Taiwan arms sales.
By allowing the crew to go this week, some diplomats here say, China still appears reasonable and even forbearing.
Moreover, China's handling of the affair allows what it feels is plenty of legal and diplomatic cover to keep the sophisticated US aircraft for an indefinite amount of time. From a military point of view, this is a windfall for the Chinese Army - which was smarting from a recent defection of an officer to the US. "The provisions of relevant laws of China ... allow a comprehensive investigation of a military aircraft illegally entering Chinese airspace," stated Foreign Ministry spokesman Sun Yuxi.
Despite Beijing's public position of stonewalling in recent days, it appears the leadership here was close to a decision perhaps several days ago. President Jiang was traveling with China's top diplomat Qian Qichen, and experts say Mr. Qian would have kept Mr. Jiang well informed on the pressures coming from the American side.
Early notice of decision
Sources here indicate the final decision must have been made Tuesday or Wednesday. Notice of the decision to release the crew by Party officials reached the provincial level in China at 10 a.m. yesterday, according to a knowledgeable insider, and was ordered to be disseminated to the county level by 6 p.m. It wasn't announced officially in a press conference until 7 p.m.
The initial reaction here was positive. "We have a victory," says one Beijing resident, who would not give his name. "The Americans have apologized, so what can we do now? They need to go home. You can't keep a hot potato in your hand."
But those few Chinese who have access to unofficial sources of information aren't as sure about the "victory." Mr. Chen, a retired Chinese naval officer says, "I read the Prueher letter on the Net. It doesn't show the same remorse our government claims. I'm upset."
Four levels of apology
The exact translations of the US letter are significant because the degree of apology offered by the US is revealed by the Chinese version. Chinese has four levels of apology, and most of the US expressions of regret have been translated here with the bottom two, yihan and wan xi, which essentially say, "excuse me," or a mild "sorry." The Prueher letter is translated by Chinese officials as both feichang bao qian, or "very sorry," and wan xi.
But a copy of the US Embassy Chinese translation of the same letter only uses wan xi.
None of these expressions reach the level of dao qian - an apology that implies significant responsibility, and was what the Chinese initially demanded.
A dao qian in diplomatic terms, particularly in Asia, suggests a degree of submission and a sign of severe sorrow - and is rarely if ever given. (It might also have legal implications.) The Japanese once offered a dao qian over their brutal occupation of China in World War II. But Japan has not issued the highest level of apology sought by China, called xie zui, which is the forgiveness asked for by a criminal in what are usually capital crime cases.
Dao qian implies, "we must rethink what we did."
In China, it is considered almost unthinkable for a person of power - whether the emperor, a landlord, or in a father-son relationship - to offer an apology on the level of dao qian.
There has been some media debate about the apology in Asian culture, and its differences with Western culture. But in Beijing, many Chinese say China's request for apology relates more to stoking national pride than with any cultural response to the incident.
"I think this is just politics. I don't see anything Confucian about it at all," says a former translator for the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. "The phrase dao qian itself is a modern phrase; it doesn't have a classical or ancient Chinese derivative." What some experts say is distinctly "Chinese" about the apology demand, and China comportment during the Hainan episode, is a deeply felt rooting for the underdog (China) in a standoff with the US.
Equally important, says one scholar, is the idea that an apology relates not to right and wrong, but to the power held by those giving the apology. Chinese views do not always operate within the Western conception of adjudicated rights, but in terms of who has the strength. If one is in a position to exercise power, that itself gives the context of "rights."
"Chinese always rally to the poor person, the aggrieved party, the guy on the downside," says the scholar. "It comes from centuries of having a lot of poor people. You should also not think that an apology in much of Asia is about right and wrong. It is about who can win!"
(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor