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MARCO WERMAN: Is he or isn't he? Dead that is. The "he" in question is former Chinese president Jiang Zemin. There had been hints in public, online, offline and on T.V. over the past few days, that Jiang has died but no official confirmation. The World's Mary Kay Magistad is in Beijing, Mary Kay, what is the latest on this mystery?
MARY KAY MAGISTAD: Well the latest is on the 10 o'clock news on China's central television. The lead story was not Jiang's death. There's a lot pf speculation about who is gonna win the 2018 winter Olympics, and Chinese censors are blocking conversation or speculation about Jiang on the official internet here. You can get around that through using a proxy server but many Chinese can't do that.
WERMAN: hat set off the rumor mill in the first place?
MAGISTAD: Well, for starters, Jiang did not appear at the 90th anniversary of the founding of the communist party of China which was on July 1st and many other formers leaders were there so he would have been expected to have been there. But also there had been rumors for awhile that his health is engraved. This particular set of rumors started very late Tuesday night in Beijing. The media that first went with the story that Juang Zemin had died were a couple media sites that are linked to the spiritual sect Falun Gong which is banned in China. And those sites are not always the most accurate when it comes to what is going on in China. However, there appear to be more credibility to the reports when they came out in Hong Kong both from Asia T.V. and TVB. And Asia T.v. is known to have relatively close links to the party. However they went with a report earlier in the evening that John had died and said that were going to run a very special report at 9:30 p.m. but when 9:30 came around they instead ran South Korean soap opera.
WERMAN: Mary Kate I understand that one hint that something was up, was that certain words were no longer searchable online. Explain that.
MAGISTAD: Well what actually happened- it's hard to know which came first but I think the rumors came first and then censors stepped in and said : "OK you're not gonna search for the word Juang", which is of course Juang Zemin's surname but it also means "river". So that makes it difficult to search for the Chinese name for the Yangtze River which is ChÃ? ¡ng JiÃ? ng. It all also comes up obviously in many other contexts so it's a little bit inconvenient. There were also blockages for words like heart attack, party secretary and of course for Juang Zemin's name. If something like this were to happen and we don't know that it has, the party likes to control the story. I was here in China in the 90's when Deng Xiaoping died and the story was released at 2:00 a.m. There had been rumors, there had been concerns and it wasn't floating around the way this rumor has been because there wasn't the kind of internet reach that there is now in China. But the party decided to release the information and go, you know, full bore with memorial tributes on television, radio and newspapers starting at 2:00 a.m. And if Jiang Zemin had died, they will release the information when they're ready to.
WERMAN: You know, I know how the Chinese government can be very protective of information but why control the story of the death of a former president especially if it is true?
MAGISTAD: Because, again, Jiang Zemin is the party's guide, they want to be able to be out in front of the story. They would actually probably consider someone getting in front of them on the story to be a leaking of state secrets which makes it even more puzzling that Hong Kong media went ahead and reported it.
WERMAN: In other words, if that information were controlled by say Chinese government opposition, they feel like they might be able to manipulate that and they would lose the game?
MAGISTAD: Well there really isn't Chinese government opposition in any sort of organized form and many of the people who have been most outspoken as social critics or as lawyers have been detained and threatened and silenced in the last few month. So it's not so much that, it's that the party is just very control happy. When there is a story like this: these are their iconic leaders. Even if Juang Zemin isn't quite on the level of Deng Xiaoping or Mao Zedong, his Three Represents thought is one of the piece of philosophy that communist party members study and the communist party wants to control the narrative whenever a leader like this passes on.
WERMAN: Mary Kate Magistad, The World's Three Represents corresponded. Mary Kate, thank you so much.
MAGISTAD: Thank you Marco.