Rumors that retired Chinese leader Jiang Zemin was dead or dying raced through China's Internet on Wednesday, sending censors into overdrive to excise them and in turn spurring people to craft ever more cryptic and inventive postings.
Searches for "Jiang Zemin" in Chinese or simply "Jiang" — which means "river" — drew warnings on Sina Corp.'s popular Twitter-like service that said the search was illegal. In response posts began appearing about former leader "River" in English.
The Internet cat-and-mouse game over the possible death of a former leader underscores how secretive China's Communist Party leadership remains — and the difficulties of maintaining that secrecy in a well-wired society.
Rumors about the 84-year-old Jiang's ill health have percolated for months and resurfaced anew after he did not appear at Friday's celebration for the 90th anniversary of the party's founding. Other current and former leaders — a 94-year-old revolutionary veteran among them — were shown by state media in prominent attendance in Beijing's Great Hall of the People.
The government's press office, the State Council Information Office, declined to respond to questions about Jiang, who led China for a dozen years until transferring power to President Hu Jintao in 2002. State media have not reported the rumors. Hong Kong television stations reported Jiang's death Wednesday night, citing sources they did not identify.
Even with the official silence, the government and Chinese society hummed along as usual — unlike when paramount leader Deng Xiaoping died in 1997. Rumors of Deng's demise repeatedly made Hong Kong's stock markets swoon so worried were investors that the capitalistic reforms he championed would die with him.
On Wednesday, Hong Kong's Hang Seng Index shed 1 percent in listless trading, and China's Shenzhen and Shanghai exchanges were flat. The Cabinet met to discuss government debt, and the central Bank raised interest rates.
"We are not going to see a palace coup of any sort," University of Nottingham scholar Steve Tsang, who is an expert on China succession issues. "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."
In cyberspace, web censors tried to quash any speculation by deleting domestic blog posts about Jiang and blocking overseas media reports that cited anonymous sources as saying Jiang was on his deathbed. When the character for "Jiang" became blocked on Sina's Weibo microblogging service, all manner of English variations for Jiang's name began popping up — a typical tactic for getting around sensitive issues.
There were posts about "River Ze People," ''River Pond People," and "River Luster People." One user, writing under the username Tonnlin, posted an illustration of the character 'dian,' which refers to a toast for the dead, with "Jonn Ze Min" typed above it.
David Bandurski, a media issues expert and China watcher at the University of Hong Kong, said censors can't completely scrub the web of any reference to a banned topic, but their vigilance effectively limits and segments the discussions of sensitive topics.
As a result, discussions become "ghettoized" — limited to small groups of online friends who understand the code words, he said.
When it comes to any kind of internal politics, Chinese officials still "want to control the conversation as ultimately as they can," he said.