Internet users in China are used to having their words censored. Those with a taste for politics have long ago gotten used to having posts with words like "Tibetan independence" or "Tiananmen Square massacre" go missing almost as soon as they appear online.
But Wednesday, an altogether more mundane term joined the list of sensitive words: "river."
Suddenly, posts referring to the recent flooding along the Yangtze River that used the river's Chinese name ("Chang Jiang") were given the same treatment as mentions of Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo – the posts disappeared. Same for references to other rivers. Searches for any of them on Weibo – China's popular Twitter-style microblogging service – drew the all-too-familiar response: "According to relevant policies and laws, the search results are not shown below."
The likely reason? The Chinese character for "river" is also the family name of former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin.
Rumours started swirling Tuesday that the 84-year-old Mr. Jiang had passed away, and gained momentum Wednesday when a Hong Kong television station "confirmed" that Mr. Jiang had died from illness. Though no such news was reported in any of China's official media, the country's army of censors swiftly moved to eliminate any terms that Weibo users might use to search for, or comment on, the rumours.
Other terms that went missing were "heart attack" and "general-secretary," as well as "301 Hospital," the People's Liberation Army General Hospital in Beijing where Mr. Jiang was said by some to have passed away. (Funerals for former Chinese leaders have a habit of turning into protests against their successors – the Tiananmen protests grew out of mourning for the deceased reformer Hu Yaobang.)
In addition to blocking searches, the censors were apparently hard at work deleting hundreds of individual postings that referred to Mr. Jiang's rumoured passing. According to one posting on Weibo, which was seen by the Agence France-Presse news agency but later deleted, the national propaganda office also issued an edict banning news organizations from reporting on the health of Mr. Jiang.
"About the news that Jiang Zemin has passed away, news organizations can't do reports on their own, all news reports should be in accordance with news releases from Xinhua (state news agency)," the posting said, according to AFP.
The rumours about the former leader's death began immediately after he was mysteriously and very noticeably absent from a July 1 celebration marking the 90th anniversary of the founding of the ruling Communist Party. All other past and present senior party figures were in attendance.
Mr. Jiang was last seen in public during the October 2009 celebrations to mark the 60 years of Communist rule in China. He stood alongside his successor, Hu Jintao, as they reviewed a parade of troops, tanks and missiles that rolled through central Beijing.
The owlish Mr. Jiang shot from his post as Shanghai party boss to become general-secretary of the Communist Party in June 1989 – in the immediate aftermath of the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy protests on Tiananmen Square – after his predecessor, Zhao Ziyang was dismissed from the general-secretary's post for being too sympathetic to the student demonstrators. Paramount leader Deng Xiaoping is said to have been impressed by how Mr. Jiang had handled similar demonstrations in Shanghai, and brought his new protégé to the national stage.
At first seen as an interim figure, Mr. Jiang lasted 13 years in the top post, and has continued to wield wide influence even after his retirement in 2002 via his allies in the Politburo.
While his theory of "The Three Represents" – his attempt to create an ideological legacy akin to Mao Zedong Thought and Deng Xiaoping Theory – has been widely scorned as meaningless (other than, perhaps, making room for capitalists in the party rank-and-file), Mr. Jiang's main contribution was perhaps the smooth transition he orchestrated to Mr. Hu. It was the first peaceful transfer of power in modern Chinese history, and set the precedent that Mr. Hu is expected to follow when he is due to retire next year.
Mr. Jiang set the country on a growth-at-all costs model during the 1990s, a period which saw unbridled economic development come hand-in-hand with widespread environmental destruction and growing social inequality. He also tolerated no dissent, famously launching a harsh crackdown on the Falun Gong movement – which saw thousands of practitioners arrested and sent to reeducation-through-labour camps around the country – after determining they were a threat to Communist Party rule.
For those waiting for Xinhua to say whether Mr. Jiang is dead or alive, there was little to chew on: hours after the rumours began to circulate, the top story on Xinhua's English-language remained a photo gallery of Hollywood's highest-paid actresses.
Unlike the Yangtze River, Angelina Jolie and Sarah Jessica Parker remain approved topics of discussion in China.