Is he or isn’t he? Around 11 pm on July 5, China’s blogosphere began trading in rumors that Jiang Zemin, the former leader of the People’s Republic, had died. By midnight local searches on this topic had become very popular. But within half an hour, the heavy hand of China’s censors descended. Chinese language searches for words relating to death, even without being paired with Jiang’s name, returned the Orwellian message: “According to relevant policies and laws, the search results are not shown below.”
So is Jiang dead?
And the Wall Street Journal blog reports that searches for “river,” Jiang’ surname, are coming up empty on Sina Weibo microblogging service:
Searches for the Yangtze’s Chinese name – Chang Jiang (长江)—on Sina.com’s Weibo microblogging platform came up empty on Wednesday, as did searches for a number of other Chinese rivers, yielding instead the service’s standard censorship notice: “According to the relevant laws, regulations and policies, the results of this search cannot be displayed.”
Why the sudden aversion to flowing bodies of water? The likeliest explanation is a torrent of rumors circulating online since Tuesday that former president Jiang Zemin is either gravely ill or has already died. Mr. Jiang’s surname means “river.”
See also a report from Global Post.
Update: From the New York Times:
Not surprisingly, the stepped-up effort to silence speculation about the well being of Mr. Jiang, 84, who officially retired as party chief in 2002 and as military chief in 2004, has generated even more rumors since last Friday after he failed to attend the 90th anniversary gala commemorating the birth of the Chinese Communist Party.
The one thing the authorities have not tried is making an official public statement about Mr. Jiang’s condition. While China’s ruling party has not in recent years suppressed news about the death of a important leader, officials rarely, if ever, discuss the health of current or former leaders, and they ban news coverage of those subjects.
“I don’t want to believe rumors, but what am I supposed to do when rumors always turn out to be true in this country?” said a posting on Sina Weibo, the popular microblogging site that on Wednesday seemed to be suffering an especially zealous rash of censorship.
CDT Chinese editors have collected a sample of Jiang Zemin related search keywords banned on Sina Weibo. Here is the list.
On Thursday, Xinhua put out a one-sentence report about the rumors, which did little to clarify Jiang’s current whereabouts:
Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin’s death from illness are “pure rumor,” said authoritative sources Thursday.
Reuters reports that Jiang is in intensive care at a hospital in Beijing, and takes a look at what his death would mean for the balance of power in Zhongnanhai with the upcoming leadership transition:
But the prospect of Jiang’s passing would add a breeze of uncertainty to a transition that is widely thought to hand power from Hu to a new generation led by Xi Jinping, currently vice president. That would take place at the 18th Communist Party Congress expected sometime in the autumn of 2012.
Xi, anointed as Hu’s heir apparent at the congress in 2007, was considered acceptable to both the Hu and Jiang camps.
But in China, the death of a senior leader can be cause for worry, and even spell disaster, for proteges and allies who are no longer protected.
Hu would no longer have Jiang acting as a counterweight to his influence over the future make up of the next leadership.
“New leaders are selected by old leaders,” Zheng Yongnian, professor of Chinese politics at the National University of Singapore. “He’s one of the important selectorate. After he passes away, other current leaders will become more influential.”