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

by Zhang Yajun

Over the last few years, I have seen the Chinese government’s learning from its PR mistakes and trying to improve its skill in handling the media.  Some journalists may disagree with me, but I feel they actually have gotten better, or at least more effective, in controlling the stories and getting the official spin out.  Nevertheless, China still has a long way to go. We saw ample evidence of that this past week with the kerfluffle over Jiang Zemin’s reported death.

Responsible and reputable journalists cannot write an article based only on a rumor. Many of my foreign media colleagues held off reporting anything, waiting instead for the government to officially announce Jiang’s death. However, once the government started to delete all Weibo and BBS messages about Jiang’s death, blocking search results about Jiang Zemin, and even restricting searches for the character “jiang” (江) the foreign news bureaus had a ready-made story.  News of Jiang’s possible demise – and the Chinese government’s nervous censorship of any Jiang-related discussion – became major international news.

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.  Social media has become a major part of their lives, for good or ill, and until the government develops a softer touch, the ability of sites like Weibo to turn passing rumors into international news will continue.