BEIJING (AP) _ Sorry can be the hardest word to say. Or the easiest.

China's leaders extracted what they trumpeted as a U.S. apology in a spy plane incident, but almost never admit their own errors. Ordinary Chinese, by contrast, consider some apologies so traumatic or risky that they hire professionals to make them.

``We have more and more customers. We're very busy every day,'' said Zhan Qi, an employee of the Tianjin Apology and Gift Center.

The center was set up a year ago by a neighborhood government in the eastern city of Tianjin, 60 miles south of Beijing. For a fee, the service will say it with flowers, gifts or whatever it takes.

``Our clients are people who want to apologize but decide not to do so themselves,'' said Zhan. ``They worry they might lose face or cause further misunderstandings.''

Other Asians offer dozens of apologies a day that range from brisk ritual to weighty obligation.

Japanese executives offer abject apologies for accident deaths, financial losses and other failings, weeping freely for the news cameras. Politicians artfully evade blame by apologizing profusely not for a blunder but for the inconvenience it caused.

``This is not a real apology but is to survive the current situation somehow and to prolong one's political life,'' said Nobuo Tomita, professor emeritus at Meiji University in Tokyo.

Koreans, as well as Japanese, say ``sorry'' even when they're not at fault. Koreans consider it rude not to offer a nominal apology in a minor dispute like a traffic accident, though they might not accept blame.

Koreans caught violating copyrights often agree to publish a ``statement of apology'' in a newspaper to avoid a lawsuit. Such admissions of guilt are considered a humiliating disgrace.

Taiwan is a hybrid of traditional Chinese apology culture and a democratic society where politicians caught in scandal have to appease angry voters.

Hours after Lo Fu-chu punched fellow lawmaker Diane Lee this month, he apologized on television to ``all the women in the nation.''

In China, a widespread desire to avoid the shame and trouble of apologizing for business failings, romantic disasters and personal slights has created a promising business opportunity.

``Many people are willing to pay a little money, for example 100 yuan ($12) to have someone else apologize for them,'' said Qin Keyi, founder of the Chinese Ivy Apology and Appreciation Service Co. in the southern province of Guangdong.

But the communist political classes can go years between admissions of error. The government goes to great lengths to depict its leaders as infallible.

Beijing has never acknowledged millions of deaths in political upheavals or a 1960 famine that killed as many as 30 million people.

That made it all the more extraordinary when Premier Zhu Rongji apologized on national television last month for an explosion at a schoolhouse that killed dozens of children. Zhu said the Cabinet had erred by failing to prevent such disasters.

``I feel very sad and I carry a very heavy heart. I want to apologize,'' Zhu said.

President Bush isn't the only foreign figure forced to express sorrow or regret to soothe hurt Chinese feelings.

Japanese automaker Mitsubishi Motors apologized to Chinese buyers this year after its Pajero sport utility vehicle was reported to have brake problems.

Zhan, the apology specialist in Tianjin, believes Americans say ``sorry'' far more freely than Chinese.

Washington refused to make a full apology for the collision of a U.S. spy plane and a Chinese fighter jet. In a compromise, Bush said he was ``very sorry'' both for the loss of the Chinese pilot and for the U.S. plane's unauthorized entry into Chinese airspace to make an emergency landing.

Zhan didn't consider that a real apology.

``It's different from the kinds of apology our clients need to express. The apology we do is a very sincere, full-hearted one,'' she said.

Nevertheless, it was enough for China, which released the 24-member spy plane crew after 11 days in captivity on Hainan island in the South China Sea.