By B. Raman
At a time when the Communist Party of China (CPC) was directing all discussions in the print, TV and new media towards its achievements during the 90 years of its existence, a section of determined netizens of the country operating clandestinely with the help of microblogs has managed to hijack the discussion and divert it away from a debate on the achievements of the party.
Instead, they have succeeded in drawing attention to the nervousness of the CPC over its future and over the effectiveness of its political control. They have done this by the simple act of spreading through microblogs rumours that Jiang Zemin, the predecessor of President Hu Jintao, as the President, the CPC General Secretary and Chairman of the Central Military Commission, had passed away in a Beijing military hospital after suffering a massive heart attack when he had come to Beijing from Shanghai to attend a gala function held by the CPC on July 1, 2011, chaired by Hu, to mark the 90th anniversary of the party.
Of the leadership triumvirate of the pre-Hu and post-Deng Xiaoping era, only former Prime Ministers Li Peng and Zhu Rongji attended the function. Jiang was conspicuous by his absence.
This set off rumours regarding the reasons for his absence. It has been known in China that Jiang, who is 84, has been in indifferent health for some months and was undergoing treatment in a Shanghai military hospital. Some months ago there were similar rumours of his death, which subsequently proved to be false.
At that time, one did not witness on the net the kind of frenzied speculation and rumour-mongering as one witnessed this time since the night of July 5 after a Hong Kong newspaper, one of whose share-holders is reportedly related to Jiang, carried the first report of the possible death of Jiang.
The Chinese authorities were taken aback when discussions on the achievements of the CPC disappeared from many microblogs, which started feverishly spreading rumours about the death of Jiang and searching for more information on the subject.
The microblogs have become the most important barometer of the state of the Chinese nation. They have also become the most disconcerting whistle-blower in modern China which manage to disseminate politically inconvenient and militarily sensitive news circumventing the firewalls erected by the Ministry of Public Security and other measures taken by it to prevent the spread of potentially destabilising news through the net.
One had repeatedly seen the new power of the new media during sessions of the National People’s Congress and the party committees. More significant details of the deliberations came from the microblogs than from the party and government controlled publicity organs.
In the past, the Chinese authorities had dealt with this phenomenon in a mature way. They had sought to strengthen their control over the new media through appropriate technologies instead of arresting and harassing the people behind this phenomenon. But their nervousness over their inability to control this phenomenon remains.
When the Net rumours about the death of Jiang started spreading like wild fire, their first reaction to the rumour spread was to try to suppress it through technical means. The much simpler way of countering the rumours by telling the truth to the people or through an official denial of the rumours occurred to them only on the morning of July 7 when the Government-controlled Xinhua news agency disseminated a report denying the rumours. This was followed by a report carried by the HK newspaper marking its distance from its initial story.
These denials have not ended the prairie fire of rumours across the Net. The previous speculation was whether Jiang was really dead, and, if so, when, where and why he died. The latest speculation after Xinhua came out with the official denial is why the Chinese authorities behaved in such a bizarre manner for nearly 48 hours before putting out an official denial. What explains their nervousness over the initial speculation regarding Jiang’s death?
Information about the health of ruling political leaders is always treated as a state secret in China. Mao Dze Dong and Deng died as leaders still wielding influence and authority at the time of their death. One could understand the nervousness that prevailed in the CPC as their death approached due to fears that their death could lead to a political turmoil inside the party as well as the country. This danger almost materialised after Mao’s death, but not after Deng’s.
Jiang is not a serving political leader. He is a retired leader, who has been ailing for some time and whose last public appearance was in 2009.There has been unverified speculation about his still retaining some influence in the CPC and hence being in a position to influence the post-Hu leadership even from his death bed. However, it is doubtful what kind of influence an ex-leader spending more time in hospital than outside could wield.
Still, sections of the CPC leadership were apparently worried over the possibility of a turmoil in the public or the party or both after his death and wanted to make sure that this would not happen before letting him die. There is a paucity of correct information regarding what has been happening in China.
Sometimes even a State-organised paucity of information could be the basis of a political assessment. One assessment that one could make is that whatever the rest of the world might say, sections of the CPC leadership are not certain in their mind that they are presiding over a politically stable country free of any potential surprises. That is the assessment that comes out loud and clear from the extreme nervousness of the CPC leadership over the Net speculation regarding Jiang’s health.