BEIJING — Last Friday, July 1, one familiar face was missing from the usual lineup of past and present Chinese Communist Party leaders at the CCP's 90th-anniversary parade: Where was former President Jiang Zemin? Was he very ill, recently deceased, or for some reason not wanted there? No explanation was given for his absence -- not even an official acknowledgment of his nonattendance. And in the absence of reported and verifiable information, rumors in China breed like rabbits.
Chatter began over the weekend on the microblogging platform Weibo-- which has some 100 million users -- about Jiang's whereabouts, but there wasn't much to go on except speculation that, at age 84, his health might have failed. But on Wednesday, July 6, some Weibo users noticed that outside Beijing's best military hospital, Hospital 301, there was suddenly a large crowd of traffic-control officers. Using Google Maps, which shows real-time traffic information in China, Weibo users confirmed that the main road outside Hospital 301 had been blocked. Some passers-by also noticed and blogged that the small parade of black cars driving into the hospital were not the standard government-issue Audis, but black Mercedes-Benzes fit for VIPs.
No one seemed to have any specific evidence linking the road closure with Jiang, but by the evening it seemed to be taken as almost fact on Weibo that he had passed away and that an official announcement was coming soon. Top Party leaders, the microbloggers claimed, had been summoned back to Beijing! Editors at state-run newspapers had been told to hold the front pages of Thursday's edition for the big news! And then … nothing. Thursday morning came and went, the papers published the usual mix of stories, and still no news. (One Hong Kong TV station jumped the gun and ran an obituary, but then retracted it.)
Now, this saga might sound like a mere curiosity, an instance of people shouting in a virtual echo-chamber, but for the fact that China's censors seemed to give credence to the rumors (or at least their fear of them) by ordering certain search terms to be blocked on Weibo: "Jiang" -- a very common word in Chinese, which also means "river" -- and "301" among them. Instead a search would yield the error message: "Due to relevant rules and regulations, the results can't be displayed."
Then on Thursday, China's state-run news agency, Xinhua, finally issued a short statement denying the rumors of Jiang's death, but also failing to offer any alternative explanation for his recent absence: "Recent reports of some overseas media organizations about Jiang Zemin's death from illness are 'pure rumor,' said authoritative sources Thursday." And that was it. Never mind that the rumors were in fact homegrown, or that what any reader really wants to know is not what isn't true (a denial), but what is true. But as of Friday afternoon, the line between fact and fiction remained unclear. Jiang Zemin remains unaccounted for.