BEIJING (AP) Ã¢â‚¬â€ China on Thursday dismissed reports that retired President Jiang Zemin, who led the country through massive changes after the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, has died.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted what it called authoritative sources as saying the reports were “pure rumor.” The one-sentence dispatch in English wasn’t carried by the Chinese-language service of the state-run agency, indicating it was meant for overseas audiences.
The need to comment underscores the difficulties the secretive, authoritarian government faces in controlling information. While state media are under tight control, foreign reports seep into China via the Internet, giving Chinese access to news Ã¢â‚¬â€ and rumors Ã¢â‚¬â€ the leadership dislikes.
An official from the Cabinet’s information office said only, “It’s a rumor,” when asked about Jiang’s death. The official, like many in China, would give only her surname, Li.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei refused to comment directly on Jiang, referring reporters at a regular news conference Thursday to the Xinhua report.
The denials follow days of intense online conjecture over whether Jiang, 84, had died or was close to death, fueled by his failure to appear at last Friday’s celebration of the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party’s founding.
A Hong Kong TV station and Japanese and South Korean media had reported that Jiang had died.
The Internet speculation sent censors into overdrive to excise the comments.
Searches for “Jiang Zemin” in Chinese or simply “Jiang” Ã¢â‚¬â€ which means “river” Ã¢â‚¬â€ drew warnings on Sina Corp.’s popular Twitter-like service that said the search was illegal. Some posts then began appearing on Sina Weibo about former leader “River” in English.
News that some overseas media had reported Jiang’s death whizzed around the social networking site, with some mainland users puzzling over how Hong Kong media could have received the news first.
The government is very secretive about the health of top leaders and is particularly sensitive ahead of a looming leadership transition that kicks off late next year at a major Communist Party congress. The death of Jiang, a retired but still very influential figure, could cause some of his proteges to shift allegiances, affecting the jockeying for power among China’s rising political elites.
China prefers to keep such machinations behind the scenes as much as possible.
The U.S.-based dissident news site Boxun.com said Shandong News in eastern China had its website disabled by authorities for reporting Jiang’s death, though the newspaper dismissed Boxun’s report.
Boxun showed what it said was a screenshot of Shandong News with a banner headline reading, “Venerable Comrade Jiang Zemin Will Never Be Forgotten” next to a photo of the former leader.
A woman in the news department at Shandong News said the newspaper’s site went offline Wednesday because their servers crashed and they were still trying to fix the problem.
The woman, who would only give her surname, Wang, said the website never posted news saying Jiang had died.
“That’s a rumor,” she said. “Maybe someone with ulterior motives made that screenshot.”
Jiang led China for a dozen years until transferring power to President Hu Jintao in 2002.