BEIJING >> China on Thursday dismissed as rumor reports that retired President Jiang Zemin, who led the country through massive changes after the crushing of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy movement, has died.
The official Xinhua News Agency quoted what it called authoritative sources as saying the reports were "pure rumor." The one-sentence dispatch in English wasn’t carried by the Chinese-language service of the state-run agency, indicating it was meant for overseas audiences.
The need to comment underscores the difficulties the secretive, authoritarian government faces in controlling information. While state media are under tight control, foreign reports seep into China via the Internet, giving Chinese access to news — and rumors — the leadership dislikes.
An official from the Cabinet’s information office said only, "It’s a rumor," when asked about Jiang’s death. The official, like many in China, would give only her surname, Li.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei refused to comment directly on Jiang, referring reporters at a regular news conference Thursday to the Xinhua report.
The denials follow days of intense online conjecture over whether Jiang, 84, had died or was close to death, fueled by his failure to appear at last Friday’s celebration of the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party’s founding.
A Hong Kong TV station and Japanese and South Korean media had reported Jiang had died. None of the reports had named sources, and the Hong Kong broadcaster, ATV, retracted the report and apologized to its audience, Jiang and his family Thursday.
While the rumors were suppressed on the mainland, they were widely reported in the semiautonomous Chinese territory that’s promised Western-style civil liberties including freedom of speech. The speculation was splashed on the front pages of leading Hong Kong newspapers on Thursday.
The central Chinese government’s liaison office in Hong Kong blasted ATV. The Hong Kong China News Agency reported an unidentified official from the office "expressed extreme anger at ATV’s serious violation of journalism ethics."
Hong Kong Journalists Association chairwoman Mak Yin-ting said she believed that responsible journalists verify their sources.
"But no one can say their information is 100 percent accurate. Your sources could be wrong," she said.
The Internet speculation sent censors into overdrive to excise the comments.
Searches for "Jiang Zemin" in Chinese or simply "Jiang" — which means "river" — drew warnings on Sina Corp.’s popular Twitter-like service that said the search was illegal. Some posts then began appearing on Sina Weibo about former leader "River" in English.
News that some overseas media had reported Jiang’s death whizzed around the social networking site, with some mainland users puzzling over how Hong Kong media could have received the news first.
The government is very secretive about the health of top leaders and is particularly sensitive ahead of a leadership transition that starts late next year at a major Communist Party congress. The death of Jiang, a retired but still very influential figure, could cause some of his proteges to shift allegiances, affecting the jockeying for power among China’s rising political elites.
China prefers to keep such machinations behind the scenes as much as possible.
Jiang led China for a dozen years until transferring power to President Hu Jintao in 2002.
AP reporter Min Lee in Hong Kong and AP researcher Yu Bing in Beijing contributed to this report.