Jiang Zemin death rumours spark online crackdown in China
Posted by Author on July 6, 2011
Even for China’s rigorous internet censors, it has proved an unusually busy day. References to rivers and laundry are among the apparently innocuous items vanishing from postings and search results amid rumours that Jiang Zemin, who led the country before president Hu Jintao took over in 2002, is dead or seriously ill.
Similar tales have circulated several times in the past. This time they seem to have been prompted by the 84-year-old’s absence from celebrations for the 90th anniversary of the Communist party on Friday. He is normally a staple of such events and other former leaders were shown at the gathering.
Sina, which runs a wildly popular microblog service, went to increasing lengths to keep the topic off-limits. Searches for the leader’s name, or even just for “jiang” – river – resulted in the warning: “Search results are not shown due to relevant laws and policies.”
They even began to remove one of the cheekiest references to Jiang: an empty set of clothes hanging up, with the trousers hitched to Simon Cowell-level. The former leader is known for his high waistline.
But some internet users began posting about a leader called “River”, using the English word.
The lengths to which authorities are going are all the more striking because Jiang’s death would be unlikely to cause major ripples.
“We are not going to see a palace coup of any sort,” said Steve Tsang of the University of Nottingham, an expert on succession in China.
“We are not going to see a leadership change as a result of Jiang Zemin’s passing away and we are not going to see a major reversal in any major policy.”
Two Hong Kong television stations have reported that Jiang has died, citing unidentified sources.
The Wall Street Journal’s website reported that Sina had also blocked searches for words such as “myocardial infarction”, “hung” – a euphemism for death – and “301 Hospital” – a reference to the medical facility that often treats top leaders.
Chinese internet users have become increasingly adept at evading censorship, often using images, analogies, Roman script and puns. But David Bandurski, of the University of Hong Kong’s China Media Project, said censorship ghettoises discussions, so that they do not spread beyond small groups of people who recognise the relevant code words.
Chinese officials still “want to control the conversation as ultimately as they can,” he said.
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