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.