Online Rumors of a Death Offer Lessons in Chinese Censorship

Any references to former president Jiang Zemin's health are being aggressively filtered

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We hear a lot about Chinese censorship, but today we're getting a real-time sense of what it looks like when China's rumor mill bumps up against its censors. The case study involves former Chinese President Jiang Zemin, whose endured  several rounds of speculation about his health.

To really understand this story we need to go back five days to the Communist Party's 90th anniversary. Jiang didn't attend the festivities in Beijing's Tiananmen Square even though, as The Financial Times noted, he'd "been present at almost all major ceremonial events" since ceding power to his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2003. The FT added that while the health of top "Chinese officials is usually considered a state secret and off-limits for tightly controlled Chinese media," the death of a senior leader or former leader is typically "announced within one or two days."

Questions about Jiang's whereabouts picked up pace last night, according to Time's Hannah Beech, as speculation spreading in the Chinese blogosphere that Jiang was dead or dying (The Epoch Times, a publication funded by the banned Chinese religious group Falun Gong, published an article with the rather shaky title, "Jiang Zemin Hospitalized, Near Death, Internet Rumors Say"). In response, Chinese authorities swiftly blocked Chinese-language searches for words related to death. Searches for Chinese rivers on the Weibo microblogging platform also yielded China's standard censorship notice, perhaps, as The Wall Street Journal's Josh Chin posits, because "Jiang" means "river." Reports today indicate that Chinese censors are also blocking "myocardial infarction," "heart attack," "general secretary," and "301 Hospital" (a reference to the People's Liberation Army General Hospital in Beijing where senior leaders seek treatment), and deleting individual posts that discuss Jiang's health. AFP even noticed one posting on Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, from China's national propaganda bureau prohibiting news reports on Jiang's health and demanding media outlets defer to the state-run Xinhua news agency, which currently has a photo gallery of the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain, as its lead story.

The censorship hasn't entirely tamped down the rumors, however. Chin notes that Chinese netizens have been getting around the censors by circulating an image, on the right, "showing an empty set of clothing hanging out to dry, pants hiked up to chest level the way Mr. Jiang preferred." The AP points to another user who posted an illustration of the character "dian," which refers to a toast for the dead, with "Jonn Ze Min" typed above it. Hong Kong television station ATV even reported Jiang's death this morning, citing unidentified sources. MarketWatch took the report seriously enough to publish a brief with the headline, "Former China president Jiang Zemin dead: reports." Al Jazeera's Melissa Chan tweeted a photo of the report, below, noting that the image was retweeted on Weibo 286 times within 20 minutes before being censored:

For The Atlantic's James Fallows, what really stands out in this back-and-forth is "the government's incredible awkwardness in handling health news about an 84-year-old man who has been out of power for a decade." If Jiang is indeed ill or dead, why would China be so reluctant to publicize it? First, as we noted before, China's Communist Party is still very secretive. Jiang is also an influential figure even though he's retired, and the government is concerned that "illness might affect the appearance of unity and political stability in the ruling party," AFP writes. (Indeed, according to CBS, the Communist Party waited more than 16 hours to announce the death of Mao Zedong  in 1976 for that very reason). The Globe and Mail's Mark MacKinnon surfaces another consideration: "Funerals for former Chinese leaders have a habit of turning into protests against their successors--the Tiananmen protests grew out of mourning for the deceased reformer Hu Yaobang."

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.