Suspicions about a report of a taxi ride across Beijing taken by President Xi Jinping deepened yesterday.
The initial report in the pro-Beijing Hong Kong daily Ta Kung Pao was verified by Xinhua, only to be denied later by the state-run news agency.
Yesterday some mainland journalists and internet users said they were not convinced the story had been fabricated.
The bizarre retraction of the Ta Kung Pao report sparked speculation there may be a rift among propaganda officials.
On Thursday the paper ran a story about how Beijing taxi driver Guo Lixin found himself giving Xi and his assistant a ride on March 1. The story was posted on a major mainland news portal until Xinhua reported the story was "fake" and the newspaper issued an apology.
Some mainland journalists find the saga rather odd, given that the newspaper has close links with the Communist Party.
"This is just something unbelievable, and at one point, Xinhua said it confirmed the story," said a mainland journalist who requested anonymity, referring to an earlier Xinhua dispatch that it had verified the report with Beijing's traffic authority.
Another journalist said: "There is speculation among mainland journalists that the paper got the go-ahead from the general office of the Party's Central Committee for the story."
But other observers, and sources close to the paper, believed the denial was issued because the story was full of "suspicious points", and it was possible a lookalike got into Guo's car.
The sources doubted Xi would have taken a taxi to the Diaoyutai Hotel from Xicheng district during the evening rush hour on March 1, just two days ahead of the opening of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference meeting.
They said there were no photos of Xi with Guo, and a note allegedly written by Xi to the taxi driver was not signed. It would be almost impossible for Xi to complete the 8.2 kilometre journey in 26 minutes at rush hour.
Mainland censors began containing debate on the story by banning searches of microblogs for words such as the taxi driver's name and "May you have favourable winds in your sails", the phrase Xi reportedly wrote on the note to Guo.
Ta Kung Pao did not return a call for comment and the taxi driver could not be reached.