BEIJING It is the most popular subject on China's Internet that no one is allowed to talk about.
After overseas media reported the death of former President Jiang Zemin, web-savvy Internet users in China are finding creative ways to jump the Great Firewall, the cloak of Internet security authorities use to disrupt or halt access to things deemed too sensitive for the Internet.
Type "Jiang Zemin" into a microblog or search box in China and you don't get much but a blocked site or a sluggish connection. Write it into a blog and you are inviting scrutiny. Sensitive comments are often deleted as quickly as they appear.
But using terms like "Uncle Jiang," "super-sovereign backstage ruler," and "former emperor," Chinese are engaging in a rather lively, if oblique, debate about the issue.
Chinese state media denied a Hong Kong television station's reports that Jiang had died, sparking a wave of speculation about the 84-year-old's condition.
Despite censorship, the keyword search "Jiang Zemin" was the most-discussed topic on the popular Twitter-style site Weibo Wednesday night.
More than 140 million Chinese have embraced microblogs -- 140-character messages -- as their latest tool for spreading information and opinions that can rile Chinese Communist Party's officials.
Jiang aside, Weibo search results for China's current premier and president, Wen Jiabao and Hu Jintao, respectively, have long been blocked.
Search results for "Jiang" (which means river), "Chang Jiang" (the Yangtze River), "Taishanghuang" (super-sovereign backstage ruler) and "Xiandi" (former emperor) showed pages that said "according to relevant laws, regulations and policies, search results are not displayed."
"The death of Uncle Jiang has been totally blocked. What kind of a society is this?" said a microblogger on Weibo who managed to skirt the rules.
China's top search engine Baidu did not block Jiang's name and its data showed that the number of searches for "Jiang Zemin" spiked more than 4,000 percent this week.
China blocks popular foreign sites like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube, fearing the uncensored sharing of images and information among the nation's more than 450 million users could cause social instability, especially after online calls for Arab-inspired "Jasmine Revolution" protests.
Before state news agency Xinhua denied the rumors of Jiang's death around midday Thursday, microbloggers were criticizing the Chinese government's silence.
"When Mao and Deng died, it was announced in a timely way," there's no reason to cover this up," said a microblogger, referring to China's former leaders Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.
Other bloggers complained that the media was responsible for fuelling the rumor mill.
"Why are some people spreading all kinds of rumors, saying such and such have passed away?" said another microblogger. "What I want to say to you, you people in the media who are playing this up, your brutality and cold-heartedness are poisoning the country. Why are you doing this?"
(Additional reporting by Sally Huang in Beijing and Melanie Lee in Shanghai, Editing by Brian Rhoads and Daniel Magnowski)