BEIJING // China dismissed yesterday reports that Jiang Zemin, the retired president 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 rumour". The one-sentence dispatch in English was not carried by the Chinese-language service of the state-run agency, indicating it was meant for overseas audiences.
An official from the Cabinet's information office said only, "It's a rumour," when asked about Jiang's death. The official, like many in China, would give only her surname, Li.
The foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, refused to comment directly on Mr Jiang, referring reporters at a regular news conference yesterday to the Xinhua report.
The denials follow days of intense online conjecture over whether Mr Jiang, 84, had died or was close to death, fuelled by his failure to appear at last Friday's celebration of the 90th anniversary of the ruling Communist Party's founding.
A Hong Kong television station and Japanese and South Korean media had reported that Mr Jiang had died.
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 the 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 looming leadership transition that kicks off 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.