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Date Posted: 17:18 13/03/2005

Sorry for China

Does being Chinese mean never having to say you're sorry?

VETERAN EXPATS in Shanghai have usually come to terms with the fact that things are different here. They have lost the sort of moral disgust they felt when they first arrived, when they noticed the way that everyone on the street seemed lost in their own private world, attending directly to their personal concerns and caring very little about anyone else around them, particularly when it came to forming queues. If someone is in distress or requires help, the People's people turn away. The People's people don't get involved. And generally, the People's people never say sorry for anything.

Are there any moral conclusions to be drawn from this? Some, of course, would blame the government. Relativists would say that this is just the way it is, culturally speaking, and vive la Derridean differance. We at Running Dog are inclined to mention the economic basis behind such superstructural concerns, and would suggest gently that even in the chaos of the Shanghai streets, there is a kind of order, even if it is based almost entirely on the assumption that everyone else is living in a hermetic bubble and that it would be foolish to behave otherwise. We would also say that problems such as these are never immutable.

In any case, Xin Zhou Kan, or the New Weekly, devotes much of its latest issue to the subject of apologizing, listing a number of incidents which should be apologized for, proposing an annual 'Apology Day' on March 15, and even drawing attention to a company in Xi'an which actually says sorry to people on behalf of its clients. But the crucial question asked by the magazine is why the Chinese just don't seem to like apologizing. 'A civilized society is not merely based on law, but on morality. However, in China it seems there are few people who regard the apology as an important moral requirement, and no one will stand up and take responsibility.'

In Hong Kong, according to the opening article, you can often hear the sound of people apologizing in public places, but in China, small conflicts lead to great tragedies because of the unwillingness to step down, own up, accept responsibility and simply say sorry.

The article broaches the possibility that the Chinese unwillingness to apologize is connected to the exaggerated notion of 'face' - the losing and saving thereof - and to the fact that anyone who makes an apology is somehow relegating himself to a lower status.

But 'the biggest apology problem faced by modern Chinese people is undoubtedly Japan,' the author goes on to say. 'A lot of Chinese people think that Japan has not yet apologized for its invasion of China,' but 'Japan believes that it apologized to China very early, with the clearest occasion being in 1995 by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama.'

Murayama said that Japan had pursued a mistaken nationalist policy and had caused 'massive losses and pain' to the Chinese people. However, 'a majority of Chinese believe that Japan has never apologized. Perhaps we can correctly say that Japan has not made an apology that has satisfied ordinary Chinese.'

And yet, 'Chinese people have not treated NATO and the explosion of the Chinese Embassy in Yugoslavia, or the US in the plane collision incident in the South China Sea, in the same way as Japan'. Whether it is reasonable to compare those events to, say, the Rape of Nanjing, is questionable, but the double standards reflect modern China, the article claims, and suggest that China has 'not yet formed a good social moral habit'.

If apologizing is generally regarded as craven and subservient, and as a mechanism to determine status rather than to acknowledge error or crime, then the unspoken implication of the article is that above all else, China wants Japan to lose face, and that saying sorry is far from enough.

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