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China says rumors of former President Jiang Zemin's death are false

Beijing finally releases a statement after unsuccessful attempts to quell intense speculation on the Internet.

July 08, 2011|By David Pierson, Los Angeles Times
  • A security guard in Beijing stands next to pictures of ex-President Jiang Zemin, left, and President Hu Jintao at an exhibition to celebrate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China.
A security guard in Beijing stands next to pictures of ex-President Jiang… (Jason Lee, Reuters )

Reporting from Beijing — After a week filled with rumor and intrigue, the official New China News Agency had the following message Thursday to relay to the world: Former President Jiang Zemin is not dead.

Rumors started swirling July 1 when the ailing 84-year-old was conspicuously absent from a ceremony at Beijing's Great Hall of the People commemorating the Communist Party's 90th anniversary.

That set off online speculation, highlighting the growing power of the Internet in China and the party's flat-footedness. Rumors began spreading that Jiang, who rarely missed major public appearances, was either too ill to attend or had died.

Within days, thousands of posts had popped up on Chinese microblogging sites, known as weibo, contemplating what had happened to the man who led China out of the political chaos after the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown and into an era of explosive economic development.

"Do you think tonight's game will be delayed?" asked someone on the Sina weibo, China's most popular microblogging service, about an Argentina-Colombia soccer match.

Jiang may not have attained a cult of personality like Mao Tse-tung or Deng Xiaoping, but his owlish glasses and his habits of breaking into impromptu song and snoozing during party conclaves nonetheless became legend.

In an apparent effort to control the narrative, Internet censors blocked Jiang's surname, which means "river." Suddenly all searches for "Pearl River" and "Yangtze River" came up empty.

They didn't stop there. Famous quotes by Jiang were gone. The military hospital in the capital where he was rumored to be treated was unsearchable. So was Song Zuying, Jiang's legendary mistress (also a songstress).

Anyone trying to look up "myocardial infarction," the medical term for a heart attack, would have also been met with a standard error message: "According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the results of this search cannot be displayed."

The response was not surprising. The health of party leaders is guarded as a state secret. But the censorship only heightened suspicion that Jiang was not well.

Anyone wanting to discuss the former leader's health online had to be inventive and use obscure terms like "late emperor" to refer to him and "Ba Bao Shan," a famous cemetery in Beijing, to suggest he was dead.

There have been previous rumors of Jiang's death. But this round was far more intense because of the breathtaking pace of communication among China's 457 million Internet users, said Xiao Qiang, an expert on digital media in China at UC Berkeley.

"The creativity behind these search terms demonstrates how much resistance and push-back there is to censorship," Xiao said. "This kind of resistance has been growing the past two years."

By Wednesday, an announcement of Jiang's passing seemed imminent. Those fortunate enough to navigate the Internet with circumvention software to access banned sites like Twitter would have found a deluge of thinly sourced posts suggesting Jiang had indeed died.

State television evening news was a logical place to expect an official answer. But the newscaster Wednesday night didn't have to say a word. He was wearing a jovial yellow tie. There would be no death announcement.

Even without official confirmation, news media in Hong Kong, Japan and South Korea reported Wednesday that Jiang had died, according to the Associated Press.

Though one of the outlets, a Hong Kong television station, later retracted its report and apologized, experts say the news organizations could still be correct.

China's leadership has a precedent for withholding news about developments such as epidemics and scandals. Finding consensus and crafting a response can take days. That was the case when Chinese human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize last year.

"The Chinese Communist Party's obsession with controlling the flow of information and putting a carefully thought-out spin on events can make it slower to respond to news than other organizations, which in turn helps create a vacuum in which rumors can gather momentum," said Jeffrey Wasserstrom, chairman of the history department at UC Irvine and author of "China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know."

Finally, after six days of intense speculation, China's state media arm released a brief bulletin on the news wires Thursday afternoon.

It read: "Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin's death from illness are 'pure rumor,' said authoritative sources Thursday."

A regularly scheduled Foreign Ministry news conference later in the day provided no additional information.

"Fascinating incident," Wasserstrom said. "Well, nonevent."

david.pierson@latimes.com

Nicole Liu and Jonathan Kaiman in The Times' Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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