Saga of President Xi Jinping's Beijing taxi trip reaches a dead end
A Hong Kong newspaper report that President Xi Jinping took a taxi ride across Beijing became the hottest topic on the mainland after it was verified by Xinhua - only to be denied later by the state-run news agency.
The initial report in the pro-Beijing Ta Kung Pao - which devoted a prominent full page to the story, as well as a webpage with interactive graphics - described the trip as weifu sifang, a term used to describe Chinese emperors' secret excursions to experience public life.
It caused a buzz across mainland social media and a Xinhua microblog said it had verified the report with traffic authorities.
But hours later, another Xinhua microblog said the story had proved to be "fake news".
Ta Kung Pao removed the story from its website and issued a statement expressing regret. It said: "There is major fake news that should not be in the paper because of our work errors. We sincerely apologise to readers." The newspaper gave a vivid account of how Beijing taxi driver Guo Lixin stumbled across Xi and his assistant on March 1, when he took them to the Diaoyutai Hotel during the evening rush hour.
It quoted Guo as saying that at first he could not identify Xi, who was sitting next to him, and asked the passenger: "Has anyone ever told you that you look like general secretary Xi?"
The driver said Xi told him: "You are the first taxi driver to recognise me."
Guo said he chatted with Xi about pollution. At the end of the 26-minute, 8.2-kilometre ride, Ta Kung Pao said Xi wrote Guo a note saying: "May you have favourable winds in your sails."
Sources close to the newspaper said the interview with Guo was conducted last week after a request by "newspaper leaders".
In an indication the story was approved by the government, it was posted on china.org.cn a website run by the State Council Information Office. But the story was later removed.
Many internet users debated Xi's style when mainland media circulated the report about the taxi trip, with some saying he was a leader who was close to the public and posting questions they would ask if they met him.
"Every provincial and county leader should learn from Xi," entrepreneur Xue Manzi said on his microblog. But some saw the incident as a publicity stunt and said the taxi driver must have been subjected to background checks to ensure he would not raise sensitive political issues with Xi.
Professor Zhang Ming, a political scientist at Renmin University, said the authorities may have originally seen the story as a way to boost Xi's popularity, but pulled it down because of public suspicion.
"The impact of the stunt was not as good as officials wanted it to be," he said.
Professor Qiao Mu, of Beijing Foreign Studies University, said: "There are many suspicious points.
"The whole saga of boosting his image, then confirmation and then denial will further make the public lose trust and hope in the new leadership."
Map: The route of Xi Jinping's supposed taxi ride, from Gulou West Street in Xicheng district to Diaoyutai Hotel
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