Bad Chinese emperors spent their time indulging themselves in palaces while neglecting state affairs. Good emperors lost sleep as they tirelessly administered the state and worried about the welfare of their subjects. Some famously travelled incognito to see for themselves how their people really lived and what hardships they suffered.
Those are the stereotypical images of emperors from dynastic Chinese history passed down to us through the ages. They were the subtext to the story last week, now embarrassingly retracted, over which the Beijing-loyalist paper Ta Kung Pao went gaga. It was a nice story about how President Xi Jinping travelled incognito in a taxi while commiserating with the driver about air pollution, traffic congestion and other urban woes in Beijing. The Hong Kong newspaper was, no doubt, eager to portray Xi as a good leader.
The government news agency, Xinhua, at first confirmed the story, but denied it later, forcing Ta Kung Pao to withdraw it. The paper had to issue a grovelling apology. Since then, both news groups have been pilloried online. Many questioned the propaganda authorities as to how the story was true at one moment and fake the next. Even the party's propaganda department has jumped into the fray, saying it is investigating.
But I think many critics got it wrong. It's surely a good sign that news organs of the party openly admitted running a fake story, and even apologised for it. Spin doctors around the world plant this sort of story all the time. Some do it well, others do so clumsily and their clients pay a political price.
Totalitarian states invent stories out of thin air. All other societies have to jazz up stories that have to have a modicum of truth or factual content. As Evelyn Waugh wrote in Scoop, even hopelessly hyped-up stories must contain "an embryo truth, a little grit of fact, like the core of a pearl, round which have been deposited the delicate layers of ornament".
Under Mao Zedong similar stories would have been impossible to verify, and you would be denounced and punished if you questioned their veracity. Sure, the Xi story exposes amateurish spin-doctoring. But it shows China is moving towards more normal journalistic practice, even if its news media remain heavily censored and controlled.