President Hu Jintao's visit to a single mother in Beijing on December 29 was meant to be timely propaganda demonstrating the leadership's concern for the poor and needy. However, it backfired spectacularly, generating widespread resentment.
The news item, broadcast nationally on December 30, showed Hu visiting Guo Chunping and her daughter, who recently moved into a government-subsidised low-cost flat in Beijing.
With many ordinary people complaining about high property prices, and similar flats in Beijing costing at least 2,000 yuan (HK$2,350) a month to rent, it sparked outrage online.
Many internet users expressed disbelief that a flat of 45 square metres could cost just 77 yuan a month, the figure 49-year-old Guo told Hu she was paying. Speculation was rife that the whole scenario was faked.
But it turned out to be true, which has led one media academic to describe the awkward episode as a warning signal for the government.
Guo showed the South China Morning Post this week papers detailing her government-issued unemployment subsidies, which said she claimed 589 yuan a month in subsidies in the first half of last year and 659 yuan a month in the second half.
Online questions and criticism snowballed during the New Year holiday, with one posting that circulated quickly saying Guo was a public servant who worked for the Chaoyang district traffic police. The posting was accompanied by pictures of a young woman accompanying her mother to the World Expo in Shanghai and other tourist attractions, enjoying fine meals and drinks. It also alleged that Guo had only been at the flat that day for show and had rented it out for 2,000 yuan a month.
'I have no job. I am living on subsidies,' a tearful Guo said on Tuesday. 'The woman in that picture was not me. My daughter and I have never travelled to such places. I am not the person people on the internet say I am. I have never been a public servant. I was a cleaner. If I were a public servant, I would be living in a nice house, not a small, government-subsidised house, wouldn't I?'
She said she had worked for a state-owned enterprise but was forced to retire early eight years ago. She then worked as a security guard for four years, earning 600 yuan a month. After that, she worked as a cleaner for Chaoyang's Sanjianfang township for three years.
She applied for subsidised housing for low-income families four years ago and recently signed a five-year lease for 77 yuan a month.
Guo said the new flat was the best place she and her daughter, who is in her third year of university studies, had lived in.
'Before, I could only afford the cheapest places,' she said. 'My last rental was 200 yuan a month. The conditions were terrible and not good for my health, but what could I do? Where would I be living if I rent out this nice apartment?
'This apartment is clean and has a heater. It is very warm. Where could I find a place so cheap in Beijing?'
The apartment building Guo moved into, Jinyu Lijing Yuan, is Chaoyang district's first government-subsidised rental block for low-income families and only opened last month, with about 600 households being given keys. Guo pays 5 per cent of the rent of around 1,500 yuan a month, with the rest paid by government subsidy.
Single Beijing residents are eligible to apply for a flat if they earn less than 6,960 yuan a year and have less than 150,000 yuan in assets. The limits for couples are double.
An unemployed couple unpacking on the floor above Guo pay 53 yuan a month for a flat of 32 square metres.
The deputy dean of Renmin University's school of journalism and communications, Professor Yu Guoming , said the fact people jumped to question the credibility of the news on state media was the result of serious flaws in government administration.
'For years the government has depended on giving misinformation or hiding the truth, for example the GDP figures of local governments don't match the central government's calculations. People are used to distrusting them,' Yu said.
'Most people have never heard of the 77-yuan rental or are unaware of such policies, which contradict our daily experience. Of course, people would think it's a favour to a few special people or a total sham. The lesson for the government is to administer with more transparency. Hiding or partially releasing information will not work in this society with more [new] forms of media such as microblogs.'