China’s communists should be proud of their proletarian form of address, “comrade” (同志 tongzhi), even after 100 years. This is what their leadership wants. In 1921, they wrote into the founding decree, “Whoever wishes to join the Party, loyally accepts its program and policies, and is recommended by another member, regardless of sex or nationality, is our comrade.” Since the reforms began, however, the varnish has peeled off the word comrade. Local party bigwigs preferred to be called “boss.” What’s even worse, after the sexual emancipation in society, the LGBTQ movement hijacked the obsolete term. In scene slang, comrade became a form of address between lovers of the same sex. In 2016, the CP reclaimed its word. Since then, “within the Party, everyone must call themselves comrades again, without exceptions.”
Only the army always held the address “comrades” in high regard. Deng Xiaoping saw to that after the Cultural Revolution. As commander-in-chief, he had the 35th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic celebrated with a military parade. For this purpose, the armed forces marching on October 1, 1984, had practiced a new salute. Deng drove past them in a red-flag limousine with the top down, shouting: “Comrades – I salute you!” (同志们好!) and “Comrades – You take great hardship!” (同志们辛苦了!). The soldiers shouted back, “Leader: we salute you!” and “we serve the people!”
The army has retained this parade ritual ever since, even under all of Deng’s subsequent successors up to the current Party and military leader, Xi Jinping. Meanwhile, the word comrade has once again become an integral part of Party jargon. In the communiqué just released after a three-day CCP economic conference, the closing paragraph features the word total of five times in a row. Xi calls on all “comrades of the whole Party” (全党同志), “leading comrades” (领导同志) and “responsible comrades” (负责同志) to fulfill the tasks for 2022.
Comrade is back in vogue. The two characters of the word mean “common will”. The Party had derived its loanword, as the Cihai Grand Dictionary explains, from a more than 2,000-year-old motto that “If we are of one mind, we are of one heart, and if we are of one mind, we are comrades.” (同德则同心，同心则同志). So it says in the historical annals of the Guoyu Jinyusi (国语-晋语四). At first, only Party members were allowed to call themselves comrades. After 1949, according to Cihai, it became a “general public form of address.”
With the reforms, salutations such as “lady” or “gentleman” emerged
This went well until, thanks to Beijing’s reform policy, the citizens got fed up with the egalitarian term. It no longer fit the “civilized society” they were striving for, nor the Confucian politeness they hoped for in social interactions. In 2010, the “service standards” of Beijing’s public transport companies reflected the new thinking. According to them, bus passengers should be addressed as “sir,” “lady,” or neutrally as “passenger” (乘客). Young people and children would be entitled to be called “little friends or classmates”. Only pensioners would be allowed to be called comrades – but only if there was no other way. Smugly, the Beijing morning paper Chenbao wrote: All elders should be addressed as either “Old Master or Old Teacher” and “only then Old Comrade.” (老师傅”、”老先生”，然后才是” 老同志). The Global Times at the time ran the headline, “Don’t call passengers ‘comrade’.”
It was even worse for orthodox communists: many CP members forbade themselves to be called comrade. They wanted to be addressed by their name and title. Local CP secretaries allowed themselves to be flattered by their subordinates as “Big Boss” (大老板) or “Boss Number 1” (老大).
The Marxists revolted, and even more so when the party’s most important term of solidarity was turned into a buzzword in everyday life. China’s gay and lesbian scene adopted the term from the gay community in Taiwan and Hong Kong as code words for their same-sex relationships. They did so openly. Since 1997, homosexuality was no longer a punishable offense in the People’s Republic, and from 2001 it was freed from the stigma of being a “mental disorder.” In 2008, filmmaker Cui Zi’en (崔子恩) directed an award-winning documentary “Queer China, ‘Comrade’ China” (誌同志) about sexual emancipation among “comrades” in the People’s Republic. It is still available on Youku in China. The movement’s confidence became apparent when its activists protested loudly in 2012 because China’s newly published “Modern Chinese Dictionary” did not dare to explain the second meaning of the word comrade.
Xi orders ideological cleansing of the language
This lasted till 2014, before the CCP, under Party leader Xi, stepped up to reclaim and rebuild the ideological positions destroyed by “cultural nihilism”. Party leaders in Guangdong and Ningbo were the first to ban their members from calling themselves and their superiors “buddy,” “chief” or “boss.” Xi eventually ordered that “within the party, everyone must once again address each other as comrades without exception” (党内一律称同志), as news portal CPC revealed in late 2016.
The hope that the rehabilitation and revitalization of the term comrade could turn things around and “set things right” is based on Confucian thought. Confucius had once answered his disciple Zilu’s (子路) question about what to do first when governing and establishing dominion over a state: “What is necessary is to rectify names (必也正名乎). If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success […] Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately (名不正，則 言不順；言不順，則事不成；事不成…。君子于其 言，無所茍而已矣).”
Following this wisdom, Xi is cleaning house ideologically. First within the Party. All of its members are to line up so that he can once again address them as “comrades,” just like the army at the big military parades.