Rumours of Jiang Zemin's death abound amid official silence
Rumours have intensified in the past 24 hours about the death of former president Jiang Zemin, amid Beijing's heightened secrecy about his health and heavy censorship.
Months of speculation reached a climax last night when Hong Kong-based ATV led its main newscast with a report that the 84-year-old former leader had died, citing unspecified sources in the capital.
However, the report did not detail the time or cause of death. A programme on Jiang's life, slotted in at the last minute and scheduled to run at 9.30pm, was later cancelled.
State media did not confirm the report yesterday despite widespread rumours saying that the propaganda authorities had told government-controlled mainland media outlets to be on standby for breaking news about the retired leader.
Rumours about Jiang's failing health were fuelled after the former Communist Party general secretary was conspicuously absent from high-profile celebrations of the party's 90th anniversary last week.
Mainland internet users broke a long-held taboo on discussions of the health problems of senior party figures in the past two days, with some posts saying Jiang was terminally ill or even dead - including satiric verse and comics - becoming hits in chat rooms and on microblogging sites.
Interest in clarifying the health rumours was intense, with many expressing disbelief but saying they had long been prepared for the passing of the former leader, who retired from his last official party post, the chairmanship of its Central Military Commission, seven years ago.
Analysts believed rumours about Jiang's failing health were likely to have a big impact on the leadership succession at next year's 18th party congress, because Jiang was believed to wield clout in mainland politics even after his retirement.
The apparent defiance in the blogosphere seemed to hit a raw nerve in Beijing, with hundreds of postings and many user accounts on Sina Weibo, the mainland's equivalent of Twitter, deleted after midnight on Tuesday. But Jiang was still ranked the most popular topic on Sina Weibo early yesterday evening.
Most analysts agreed that Beijing had no reason to withhold news about Jiang's death, despite the secrecy over his deteriorating health.
Chen Ziming, a prominent dissident in Beijing, said: 'There has been no such thing over the years as the death of a leader being covered up for days before it was made public. It is possible that Jiang is in a vegetative state, but it is unlikely that he has died, given the fact that no official confirmation has been provided.'
Hong Kong-based China-watcher Johnny Lau Yui-siu said the rumours were reminiscent of ones circulating before the death of Deng Xiaoping in 1997.
'Every news media outlet was trying to guess when and whether Deng died,' he recalled.
Additional reporting by Choi Chi-yuk