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Saying sorry to the Chinese

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James Reynolds | 14:44 UK time, Thursday, 12 February 2009

Apologies matter to China. A few from recent history...

  • In 2001, a US navy aircraft collided with a Chinese military fighter jet off the southern coast of China. The Chinese pilot was killed in the collision and the US aircraft was forced to land on Chinese territory. The US crew was detained and only released after the United States wrote a letter in which it said it was "very sorry" both for the death of the Chinese pilot and for entering China's airspace without verbal clearance (whether "very sorry" was an admission of responsibility or an expression of sympathy was left unclear in the original English text).

  • In 2008, a pro-Tibetan protestor tried to grab the Olympic flame from a disabled Chinese athlete during the torch relay in Paris. Shortly afterwards, the French president said sorry in a note hand-delivered to the athlete.

  • And earlier this month Cambridge University apologised after one of its students threw a shoe at China's Premier Wen Jiabao, during a speech the leader delivered to the university (Mr Wen subsequently asked the university to forgive the student).

Now the most successful athlete in Olympic history has joined the apologisers' club.

Michael PhelpsThe US swimmer Michael Phelps, who won eight gold medals at the Beijing Olympics, has appeared in an internet video addressed to his fans in China. It comes after the swimmer was photographed smoking marijuana.

During the 51 second video Mr Phelps speaks over Chinese subtitles, "To my Chinese friends, as many of you know, I recently engaged in behaviour that was regrettable and not what people have come to expect from me ... To the young people of China, please learn from this lesson, be positive in life, and do the right thing ... I look forward to returning to China soon."

The fact that Mr Phelps chose to address his fans in China may reflect an attachment to the country which made him famous. More realistically though, it's a sign of the importance of the Chinese market to his remaining sponsors - particularly Mazda. The swimmer recently signed a contract said to be worth more than $1m to promote Mazda cars in China - it's the largest ever sponsorship deal for a western celebrity in China. An apology may help to protect the company's investment.

Some of you may debate whether or not Mr Phelps's video statement to his Chinese fans is a real apology - he doesn't actually say sorry at any point. But his sponsor believes that it counts. In a statement, Mazda says that the athlete "apologized to the Chinese public through a videocast."


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