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In the west, there are spin doctors. In China, the art of political alchemy is performed by a different class of publicists, valued for their skill in dressing up the Communist party’s policy twists in suitable socialist garb.

The hand of the party’s “theorists” was evident in this week’s directive that Communist party members should address each other as “comrade”. In Xi Jinping’s case, that means not party secretary, his most important title. Not president. And not Xi Dada, meaning Uncle or Father Xi, an affectionate term that the authorities had allowed to circulate in the local media.

The theorists have had notable propaganda successes in the past, coining phrases that have often baffled outsiders but make perfect sense internally, such as “socialist market economy” or “capitalism with Chinese characteristics” for a nominally Communist state.

On this occasion, unfortunately, the language of China, like the country itself, has moved on since the days when a comrade was a fraternal colleague in the noble pursuit of socialism.

Although it may have passed the politburo inner circle (average age about 65) by, for a few decades the word has been expropriated by the gay community. Both playful and cleverly politically correct, gay people use “comrade” to show solidarity in a society that has by and large been hostile to homosexuality. It was not until 2001 that homosexuality was removed from the ministry of health’s list of mental illnesses.

Out-and-out hostility has mostly gone, at least in metropolitan areas, but the stigma is still widespread. Under pressure, some gay men and women marry each other, in “co-operative marriages”, to spare their families the shame of their only child coming out.

It was no surprise, then, that the directive for party members to use “comrade” elicited much sniggering from young people on social media and from the foreign press. This will not worry the leadership too much as the message was directed at party members, not the public at large. Even so, the language diktats of the theorists should not be dismissed too lightly. The directive that instituted the linguistic change, “Norms of political life within the party under current conditions”, was issued by the Central Committee, which acts as a kind of enlarged board of directors for the Communist party. In other words, it was released only after serious consideration at the highest of levels.

Party leaders still address each other in speeches as “comrade” but use of the term has fallen away otherwise. In its place, all sorts of titles have sprung up that inevitably denote rank of one kind or another, of “deputy director”, “boss” and “big brother”. The number of titles, the leadership argues, has proliferated in tandem with official corruption. In a kiss-up, kick-down system like that of the Communist party, the hardening of hierarchies denoted by forms of address has made it easier for senior officials to gain financial favour from underlings.

Too many ambitious officials win their promotions not on merit but by purchasing jobs, and the titles that go with them, as party positions can be monetised by accepting bribes from citizens relying on government favour.

But the idea of replacing all such titles with “comrade” will run into contradictions. Mr Xi, for example, has encouraged a revival of Confucianism, although China’s homegrown philosophy is replete with hierarchical codes of conduct. Under Confucius, a pupil does not dare call a teacher “comrade”.

The biggest obstacle to change is likely to be Mr Xi. As the most powerful party leader in a quarter of a century, he has instilled with his anti-corruption campaign a fear within the system not seen since the days of Mao Zedong’s purges. While party theorists exhort officials to call each other “comrade”, most doubtless think they would do so with Mr Xi at their peril.

The writer, a former Financial Times Beijing bureau chief, next year publishes a book on Sino-Japanese relations and the US

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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