“Turning rumors into news: The non-death of Jiang Zemin”

Zhang Yajun at Granite Studio has a good piece up about the curious case of Jiang Zemin, former Chinese president who did not, in fact, die yesterday.

So if he isn’t dead, why all the coverage? News sources, both foreign and Chinese, ran stories constantly yesterday claiming that he was either alive or dead. It looks like it all started with a rumor on Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter. Still, rumors on Weibo are a dime a dozen- why did it take off like that? True, he was absent from the Party celebrations last week, but what really got everyone worked up was the way Weibo and certain government-controlled outlets started censoring the news. Searches for his name and even just for Jiang, his family name, were blocked inside China. This seemed especially odd given that Jiang means “river,” so any search whatsoever containing the word river came up blank. Why go to such lengths if he wasn’t dead, the reasoning went.

Well, turns out he’s alive. There are probably a few lessons to be learned here- about the difficulty in covering such things, the need to be careful when looking at a government cloaked in such levels of secrecy. But I think it’s also an illustration of the dangers of the road China is pursuing in regards to censorship and information management. There’s such a low level of trust between the people and the government that their blocking of Jiang-related searches and pronouncements to the contrary were actually seen by Chinese internet users as proof that Jiang had died. As Zhang says:

Groundless rumors eventually die out. After all, unlike inflation or tainted food, news about a former president doesn’t affect the lives of most Chinese netizens. However, as soon as the information is censored, our natural curiosity is aroused.

Chinese netizens are as nosy and curious as any other group of news junkies in the world. Even though many of them must rely on the party-controlled media for their news, the Party’s absolute monopoly on information is a thing of the past. Many people my age would rather get their information online, even to the point of believing an unsubstantiated rumor on Weibo. This is true especially when the government is trying to block the rumor. In today’s China, it is government censorship which gives credibility to unsubstantiated rumors, and that turns rumors into news.

So far it seems that Mr. Jiang is still alive. But one thing is clear: in an information hungry society like China, Chinese people are no longer satisfied with Party-line pronouncements.

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Filed under censorship, China, media

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