Calling the piece “fake news”, China's state news agency is backpedaling on a report, which appeared in Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper and the agency originally endorsed, about Chinese President Xi Jinping hailing a taxi last month in order to chat with the cabby about the issues of the day.
Ta Kung Pao [zh] newspaper published on April 18, 2013 an interview with taxi driver Guo Lixin who claimed to have driven Xi, who supposedly wanted to experience rush-hour traffic in Beijing. The ride, reminiscent of the undercover trek many Chinese emperors made to meet common folks, known as Weifusifang, appeared to be a media stunt to boost the communist leader's image.
With news outlets rushing to repost the juicy scoop and online discussion about the Xi's taxi ride gaining steam, state news agency Xinhua announced on popular Chinese microblogging site Sina Weibo in the early afternoon on the same day that it had confirmed the story with transportation authorities.
However, a few hours later Xinhua announced in a terse news bulletin [zh] that the report was untrue.
In response, Ta Kung Pao newspaper scrubbed the original report from their website and issued an apology [zh]:
The Ta Kung Pao ran an article on April 18 called “Beijing cabby: General Secretary Xi took my cab”. We feel deeply upset and extremely regretful about this. Such a major case of false news absolutely should never have happened. We sincerely apologize to our readers. We will take this as a lesson and give readers our accurate news reporting.
Following the move by the newspaper, a number of news portals have retracted the repost. A man claiming [zh] to have fooled the taxi driver in Beijing then appeared online posting photos to prove his likeness to Xi.
Tao Kung Pao’s interview with the 46-year-old cabby Guo, which many later labeled as a hoax, portrayed Xi as a leader with common touch. During the alleded 26-minute drive [zh] through the city, Xi was said to chat with Guo over the city’s chronic air pollution and pay for cabbies. The deleted report also said Xi was accompanied by another man whom it didn't identify.
Chinese media reports commonly cast state leaders in a positive light. Since taking the helm of China in mid-March 2013 as the country’s president, Xi has established a reputation of humbleness thanks to a torrent of media eulogy.
But this time, government-supported newspaper Ta Kung Pao’s attempt to burnish Xi’s image seemed to have backfired, with many netizens crying out in frustration.
Siwen Pizi from Henan wrote [zh] on the Weibo:
There is official confirmation that Xi Boss taxi ride was fake news, wasn't it just taking a taxi? Anything wrong? One moment real, another moment fake! What is going on?
Genni Jiedian Xinfu, also from Henan, raged [zh] on his Weibo account:
I was speechless completely, I don't want to say anymore! This was very disappointing, I though boss Xi was on an undercover inspection, but the result was so chilly! Ta Kung Pao and He Fei Evening News slapped their faces for issuing apologies, I couldn't help asking: Don't you need to confirm the authenticity of the news before you report it? You guys even treated it as headline news.
Aizai Ye Hehua, a Weibo user from China's eastern Zhejiang province, was in a state of shock and doubt [zh]:
Why fabricate……when the content was so close to common people's life……To analyze it in detail…..this is not just simply about fabrication…. Apparently it was rehearsed….orchestrated… pre-arranged… Why so… Why???
In reference to the avalanche of media outlets that republished the story as true, American TV network ABC's Beijing producer Karson Yiu joked on Twitter:
Seems like Xi Jinping cab ride story is the Chinese messing with the foreign media. Payback for all those Onion articles they fell for.
Wall Street Journal China Wealth and Luxury editor Wei Gu wrote on Twitter:
The fake Xi turn himself in now. Sadly, most Chinese media fell for the joke.