On October 1 last year, President Hu Jintao stood buttoned up in a Mao suit, in an open-roofed Red Flag limousine, to address China’s biggest-ever military parade with a forceful tongzhimen hao! Greetings comrades!
“Comrades, you are working hard!’’ the President had said to the People’s Liberation Army on Beijing’s main avenue.
“Greetings, leader! We serve the people!’’ the soldiers roared back with Mao Zedong’s best-known political slogan.
Comrades may not be heard of again in Beijing until China’s next military parade a decade away. The revolutionary ‘comrade,’ a post-1930s relic of communist China, is being marched out with modernisation.
This week, employees of Beijing’s bus companies were ordered to replace ‘obsolete’ comrades with nüshi (madam) and xiansheng (sir) while addressing passengers. “Sir and Madam better reflect the modern concept of public service,” an official was quoted saying in the Beijing Youth Daily.
Addressing each other as comrade signaled a shared ideology and equal footing in the communist movement that is now history for China’s outspoken young generation.
“There is something awkward, something dishonest about the overuse of ‘comrade’ unless the person you call comrade actually shares your political ideal,’’ Wang Xuetai, a professor at China’s top think-tank the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, told the Global Times.
The last comrades reminisce about the lost era in Beijing’s parks, where elderly couples wearing Mao jackets and carrying tea flasks hop off the bus to spend the day on park benches. It’s still common to address them as lao tongzhi or old comrade, but the bus employees have been reportedly told ‘elder sir’ and ‘elder master’ is preferable. The officials didn’t say as much, but ‘comrade’ is also out because the word has turned into Chinese slang for gay.
Beijing’s bus drivers and ticket-sellers have also been instructed to start saying please and thank-you, making the move a part of China’s campaign to internationalise its culture. The biggest sweep of customs is underway in Shanghai to host the World Expo from now to October.
The Shanghai Municipal Office of Spiritual Civilisation Construction Committee has issued online instructions and etiquette brochures banning pyjamas in public, urging citizens not to be noisy and politely ‘strive to safeguard the national image when encountering foreign friends at the expo’.