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China Appears to Censor Any Online Discussion of an Ex-Leader’s Health

By Andrew Jacobs | NYT | July 7, 2011

BEIJING — What do Jiangsu Province, the minor pop idol Jiang Yirong and Huadong Hospital in Shanghai have in common? Over the past day, these and scores of other words and expressions have been blocked on much of the Chinese Internet, a result of the government’s unrelenting attempt to quash widespread rumors that the former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin is dead or dying.

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 president in 2003, 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.

Early Thursday, the official Xinhua News Agency said reports that Mr. Jiang had died were “pure rumor,” quoting what it said were “authoritative sources.” While China’s ruling party has not in recent years suppressed news about the death of an 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.

In many instances, the offending words contain the character “Jiang,” the former leader’s surname, which also means “river” in Chinese. Huadong, also unsearchable, is the top-notch hospital where Mr. Jiang, the once jaunty Communist Party general secretary, may or may not have been treated for a heart attack, a stroke or infected mosquito bites — all ailments alternately blamed for his disappearance from public view.

Speculative online accounts have repeated as fact the rumor that the respirator supposedly keeping Mr. Jiang alive would be unplugged on July 8. The number eight is considered lucky among the Chinese because it rhymes with the character meaning prosperity. (While the accounts are likely to be false, some commentators say an ailing Mao Zedong was taken off life support on Sept. 9, 1976, because the ninth day of the ninth month would be an easy date for the masses to remember.)

Mr. Jiang last appeared at a major public gathering in 2009, when he joined other senior leaders reviewing a military spectacle marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

Talk about Mr. Jiang’s impending demise has ricocheted across the Internet and then faded numerous times over the years. But his failure to show up at the 90th anniversary celebration, a required event for retired party elders as well as current leaders, raises the likelihood that he is in fact ailing.

A Hong Kong television station went so far as to broadcast news of Mr. Jiang’s death before retracting the report. And overseas Chinese Web sites that specialize in political gossip have been claiming that Mr. Jiang died Tuesday night or that a large number of police officers were spotted outside the Beijing hospital that caters to senior leaders. (Not surprisingly, that institution, the 301 Military Hospital, can no longer be searched on the Internet.)

Sam Crane, a China expert at Williams College, suggested that the government censorship machine was counterproductive. “It’s making them look very foolish,” he said. “The state is trying to control information so they can control the narrative, but in the Internet era that’s harder and harder to do.”

The narrative about Communist Party leaders has always been a fraught business, with the passing of top leaders sometimes proving politically disruptive. In 1976, after the death of the beloved Prime Minister Zhou Enlai, party leaders tried to suppress public mourning. In the end, as many as two million people defied the authorities by gathering in Tiananmen Square, where they criticized the Gang of Four, Mao and the excesses of his Cultural Revolution.

A decade later, the unexpected death of General Secretary Hu Yaobang led to an outpouring of public grief in Tiananmen Square that morphed into a mass protest against the party. That episode, which ended in a hail of gunfire on June 4, 1989, shook the party to its core.

The death of Mr. Jiang, whose tenure is not especially savored by Chinese liberals, would not be likely to draw such an emotional public response. But the Communist Party does not like to leave anything to chance.

Roderick MacFarquhar, a China specialist at Harvard University, said that even if the rumor about Mr. Jiang’s failing health proved true, the party had never hidden public disclosure about the death of a senior leader. Any delay, even if brief, might be aimed at allowing the members of the Politburo Standing Committee to prepare his obituary and public eulogy, which would presumably be delivered by President Hu Jintao, who succeeded him as party chief.

“They need time to prepare, not so much for the funeral, but for the description of the man and his place in Chinese Communist Party history,” Mr. MacFarquhar said.

In the meantime, the government’s handling of the matter seems to be prompting a torrent of ridicule on the Internet, especially on Twitter and other overseas sites that are beyond the control of Beijing’s censors. On Wednesday, people began circulating photographs of Mr. Jiang shaking hands with the former leader Deng Xiaoping (“they meet again”) and a cartoon of a pair of trousers hanging on a clothesline that is meant to be a reference to a Chinese euphemism for death.


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