Is he or isn’t he? Around 11 pm on July 5, China’s blogosphere began trading in rumors that Jiang Zemin, the former leader of the People’s Republic, had died. By midnight local searches on this topic had become very popular. But within half an hour, the heavy hand of China’s censors descended. Chinese language searches for words relating to death, even without being paired with Jiang’s name, returned the Orwellian message: “According to relevant policies and laws, the search results are not shown below.”
So is Jiang dead? Gossip about the 84-year-old’s ill health has circulated for some time, and the fact that he didn’t show up for the mega-celebrations of the Chinese Communist Party’s 90th anniversary on July 1st further fueled speculation. (In 2009, Jiang joined the festivities marking the 60th anniversary of the People’s Republic.)
With his owlish glasses and penchant for droll attire abroad—a tricorn hat at Williamsburg was just one of his fashion blunders—Jiang was easy to dismiss as a clownish imitation of his powerful forebears, Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. He underwhelmed with his abstruse Three Represents ideology, which even after a nationwide propaganda campaign still left many Chinese confused as to what it actually meant. But during the 1990s, Jiang managed to hold together the Party and brooked no dissent, whether from religious groups like Falun Gong or liberals within China’s leadership ranks. He oversaw the further modernization of China at a time when some naysayers were predicting the country’s economic collapse. And he boasted an impressive memory that encompassed an ability to recite the Gettysburg Address and speak basic Romanian.
Perhaps most significantly in an autocratic nation, Jiang knew when to let go. At the end of his terms as President, Communist Party General Secretary and Central Military Commission chief, Jiang handed over the reins to Hu Jintao, avoiding the public tussles that had plagued previous leadership transitions in China. Even as his possible passing creates an Internet furor, Jiang will still be remembered as a man who knew how to make a graceful exit.