Chinese React to the Possible Death of Jiang Zemin
A Hong Kong-based show broke the news recently that Jiang Zemin, former Paramount Leader of the People's Republic of China, has died. They have recently recanted this statement, but the internet is flowing with rumors about the possible death of one of the most influential men in the history of modern China.
The government in China has responded to these rumors with heavy-handed censorship, clearing all micro-blog posts referencing Jiang and blocking searches containing his name (the inconvenient and amusing consequence of which is that Chinese net-users are unable to search for “river,” the meaning of Jiang's surname).
Censorship in China is not unusual, but it may be surprising to Western readers that the Chinese government would be concerned about rumors surrounding the innocuous death of a former leader. What is it, exactly, that China has to fear from people talking about this?
As one leader passes, it becomes a time for Chinese people to more openly reflect on their merits and failings, and to speculate about the future of politics. @Edouroo on Twitter quoted Li Datong, the former editor of a Chinese democratic magazine, remarking that “the leaders of China have become weaker and weaker; Jiang Zemin was weaker than Deng Xiaoping, Hu Jintao is weaker than Jiang Zemin … the legality of the CPC is based today on its ability to keep the Chinese economy developing quickly.” @ShooterPlayer was more positive, claiming that “objectively, Jiang was a passable leader. During June 4th [the Tiananmen Square massacre] he didn't do too many bad things. He also insisted on reform… [and] promoted good relations between China and the United States.” Some, like @易鹏, praised Jiang unambiguously, stating that “Jiang made great contributions to Chinese economics, and the development of the economy today relies almost completely on his work, and the work of Zhu Rongji… [During his rule he demonstrated his] tolerance and flexibility.” Others simply lamented the fact that discussion of Jiang was being censored on domestic microblogging services.
When asked, one of my sources in China seemed to mirror the sentiments of Twitter's @Edouroo, who believes that the Communist Party is censoring discussion Jiang's potential death because “they are worried that this information will influence the stability of their regime.” When I pressed my source, he reminded me that the Tiananmen Squire uprising was preceded by the death of another former Paramount Leader, Hu Yaobang, and indicated that he believed the Party wished to downplay the importance of individual leaders, releasing information about their deaths quietly to avoid controversy and discussion. But he also expressed cynicism at the idea that such information posed a real threat to the Party: “Today's society is different from before. Nobody in China wants to stand up the way they did 22 years ago [at Tiananmen]. They care about their lives, their houses, their cars, and stable living … the Party will control this country for my whole life, and after I die as well.”
Timing may also play an important role, here. Jiang Zemin did not take part in the recent 90th anniversary of the Party, which was plagued by other embarrassments, including unprecedented flooding in Beijing that caught the city completely unprepared, and the box-office and critical failure of its big budget, celebratory propaganda film, Beginning of the Great Revival, and the emergence of grass-roots candidacies to challenge Party leadership in local elections. Maybe the government just believes that the death of a powerful leader would be the inauspicious icing on the cake of their flat celebrations.
Christopher Michael Luna is a Contributing Writer for The Propagandist