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Former Chinese President and Secretary General of the Communist Party Jiang Zemin. Photographer: Wu Zhang/Bloomberg News
View: Is Jiang Zemin Dead or Alive?
On the night of July 4, social networks in China lit up with a rumor that the former Chinese President, Jiang Zemin, had died. I watched the speculation flicker across my computer screen before deciding that, since I live only a few blocks from Jiang’s sprawling Shanghai compound, I should venture outside to see if anything was afoot.
Despite the fervent online activity, the neighborhood was quiet. It is a pleasant, tree-lined area with a large number of mansions -- including Jiang's -- secured behind hulking gates. Foreign passport holders aren’t allowed to live in its immediate vicinity; allegedly, prospective Chinese homebuyers have to agree to a genealogy check to ensure that their families have been foreigner-free for three generations.
The only thing that struck me as unusual in the neighborhood was the four traffic assistants stationed on a busy corner, directing pedestrians to obey the walk signals -- at midnight.
Did traffic assistants at midnight mean that Jiang Zemin was dead?
Like the millions of Chinese communicating on blogs and microblogs, I was looking for any indication that would confirm or refute the rumor. This is what happens in an opaque society.
Over the course of the next two days, I took several more strolls past the compound. In each case I saw -- possibly! -- “something.” There was a motorcycle cop who slowly trawled the neighborhood. There were two uniformed soldiers who walked near me. I couldn’t help but over-interpret -- or perhaps, under-interpret -- their meaning.
Arguably, I was wasting my time walking through the neighborhood two or three times a day. But, arguably, so were the millions of Chinese microbloggers who have tried since the night of July 4 to discuss the rumors about Jiang while contending with Chinese online censors.
The censors blocked the use of Jiang’s name; drawings of Jiang’s pants (he likes, or liked, to pull them up to his chest); the word "river" (Jiang’s name shares a Chinese character); and internet searches for -- among other terms -- the Chinese equivalent of “myocardial infarction,” presumably due to rumors that Jiang had suffered a heart-attack.
By July 6, the frenzy reached absurd levels. Despite being a banned search term on the popular Sina Weibo, China’s one-hundred-million strong microblogging platform, Jiang Zemin’s name was the site’s top trending topic.
The question of whether Jiang was dead or alive also moved beyond the microblogs and into the Chinese and Hong Kong mainstream media.
During an evening newscast on July 6, ATV, the Hong Kong television station, featured a Jiang obituary; it was later retracted in full. In the mainland, a provincial news portal ran a banner commemorating Jiang’s life.
Online rumors claimed that the government would make an announcement regarding Jiang on the 10 p.m. news. When that didn’t happen, more rumors predicted that officials would make an announcement at 10 a.m. July 7. That didn't happen either.
Instead, just after noon, Reuters -- via Xinhua, China's official news agency -- tweeted a curious wire story that reads, in its entirety:
Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin's death from illness are "pure rumor," said authoritative sources Thursday.
There was no mention of the millions of Chinese microbloggers who had promoted -- if not started -- the rumors via Sina Weibo. Nor was there a readily accessible Chinese-language version of the Xinhua story Reuters reported in English; the one that popped up was quickly deleted by Chinese censors. Naturally, then, Chinese netizens did their own translations of the story -- which appear to have also been quickly deleted. This point wasn't lost on Chinese Weibo users, including Hu Yeifu, who wrote:
As we all know, the Chinese version of Xinhua is for Chinese to see, and the English version is mainly for foreigners...the Chinese version should be released more promptly than the English version when the events concern China. So why did Xinhua do the opposite in this case? Don't tell me that foreigners have a preferential right over Chinese to know what has happened in China.
Irritation at the English-only statement was echoed and amplified across Weibo, as was another sentiment that couldn’t have been welcomed by the Chinese censors: If Jiang was not dead already, he would be dead quite soon. The proof? The foreigners -- namely, Hong Kong TV -- had already reported it to be so.
Weibo user Papa Liu provided the historical case for this conclusion by touching on the death of former premier Zhao Ziyang. He wrote:
On January 6, 2005, Hong Kong media reported the death of Zhao Ziyang … Then on January 17, Xinhua News Agency issued a 56-word notice that Zhao passed away on January 17. On May 9, 2007, [Hong Kong] Phoenix TV announced the death of [Executive Vice Premier] Huang Ju … On 6:30 AM June 2, Xinhua News Agency distributed news dispatches to announce Huang Ju had died on June 2.
By the end of Thursday, July 7, it was possible to find an educated group of Weibo -- and Twitter -- users comparing Jiang Zemin to Schrödinger’s Cat, the thought experiment suggesting that a cat in a sealed box can be both alive and dead until observed. Sina Weibo user CafeTravel, writing in English, put it this way: “Mr. Jiang is now officially Schrödinger's cat, his death depends on [how President] Hu [Jintao] and [Premier] Wen [Jiabao] see it.”
Alive or dead, there’s a strong consensus on the microblogs that can be summarized with this tweet from XXXSSSXXXSSS: “Another classic teaching moment is before us. It is a total failure of crisis public relations.”
Meanwhile, as of 90 minutes ago, things remain quiet in front of the Jiang compound. But I’ll be back later tonight, in search of suspicious numbers of traffic assistants and, if I’m lucky, a few motorcycle cops.
(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog. The opinions expressed are his own.)
To contact the author of this blog post: Adam Minter at ShanghaiScrap@gmail.com
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