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Protesters in Shanghai and the northwest cities of Xian and Lanzhou staged funerals last week for students who died in Beijing during a hunger strike for freedom and democracy.

The somber Shanghai procession featured huge wreaths of flowers to remember comrades in Beijing that an epitath said were "sacrificed for democracy."The only problem: nobody died.

Without a free press at a time of great social and political turmoil, China has been taken over by rumors.

From student loudspeakers, official government sources, journalists and the man on the street, the flow of hints and innuendoes is unceasing.

Sometimes the rumors are created to sully an enemy or aid a friend. Sometimes it seems all of Beijing is playing a gigantic game of "telephone," with no goal other than the passing of strange information.

Chinese with a political ax to grind are putting out false or distorted information to benefit whichever faction they support. Others, reveling in their life on the inside track, are relaying the stories with all the glee of small-town gossips.

The situation is so bad the government outlawed rumor-mongering in Beijing when it declared martial law on Saturday.

Widespread student rumors included an imminent attack on Tiananmen Square, which student protesters have occupied, by paratroopers and the electrification of subway grates by authorities.

Zhang Weiguo, a reporter on the World Economic Herald, a relatively liberal newspaper based in Shanghai, said the rumor mill shows how badly China needs a freer press.

"People are learning about major government changes and about the biggest student movement in China's history from Popsicle sellers and newspaper dealers," he said. "This is not a way to inform the people."