Taken for a ride

Did Xi Jinping hail a Beijing cab?

Taken for a ride

His usual mode of transport...

According to a documentary series produced by Phoenix TV, Mao Zedong attempted three incognito walkabouts while Chinese leader. None quite worked out. Despite his disguise, Mao was easily identified. Each time, a crowd flocked to greet him.

During one attempt in 1958, Mao and his guards visited a Tianjin restaurant. This provoked a stampede and led to many losing their personal belongings in the crush. Mao was later told that there was enough lost property to fill seven and a half baskets.

Quite why so many diners had their fountain pens with them is open to conjecture. Many of the reports from the Mao era are questionable to say the least and historians are sceptical about how spontaneous Mao’s wanderings really were.

That means that it’s often wise to err on the side of caution when similar incidents are reported for Party bigwigs. That became evident again last week when President Xi Jinping was said to have taken a 26-minute trip through downtown Beijing in a taxi.

The source of the story was Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper normally considered reliable in its reporting on officialdom (as it’s funded by the Communist Party). That gave the story credibility and soon led to the report going viral on the internet.

In the original article, Guo Lixin, a 46 year-old Beijing cabbie, told Ta Kung Pao that two men had hailed his taxi during rush hour on March 1. As they chatted casually about the capital city’s smoggy air, Guo claimed that his fare began to look remarkably familiar. “Has anyone told you that you look like General Secretary Xi?” Guo asked, when stopped at a red light. “You are the first taxi driver to have recognised me,” the passenger chuckled.

On arrival, the passenger insisted on paying Rmb30 for the Rmb27 ride and told Guo to keep the change. But Guo said he was paid much more in the form of four Chinese words – “best wishes for a smooth journey” – written by Xi on the back of a fuel-surcharge receipt.

Xi’s taxi ride soon became the talk of China. The BBC said a weibo version of the story was forwarded more than 69,000 times just hours after being released. Many netizens compared Xi to Qianlong, a Qing Dynasty emperor famous for travelling incognito. Even Xinhua’s official weibo picked up the story, including a confirmation from the city’s transport authority.

But Ta Kung Pao’s scoop soon fell apart. On the evening of April 18, Xinhua reversed course and issued an urgent clarification warning that the story was fake. That was soon getting note too as it’s rare for Xinhua to deny a media report with such severity. (The last time it happened was to scotch news that former leader Jiang Zemin was dead.) It meant that propagandists limbering up to trumpet Xi’s common touch were caught totally wrong-footed. Several newspapers were forced to pull their front page coverage of Xi’s taxi escapade.

Ta Kung Pao then published an apology. But that also stirred debate. The story was co-written by the paper’s Beijing bureau chief, so onlookers wondered how a veteran journalist at a pro-Beijing broadsheet could cook up an entirely fictional series of events related to China’s most powerful man.

“Is Xinhua playing a hoax on Ta Kung Pao?” one net user asked.

“Xi’s body double was late so he had to take a cab?” posited another.

This second theory gained traction when a weibo user called ‘Bowenhuaxia’ published two photos of himself, claiming that he was a Xi lookalike. He added that he had fooled the cabbie into believing the Chinese leader was in his taxi. But a girl living in Zhejiang then claimed that the Xi lookalike was actually her father, and added that it couldn’t have been him in the taxi as he hasn’t travelled to Beijing this year.

So who is telling the truth? Up to this point, no one has come up with a convincing explanation for what happened.

The Apple Daily reported that cabbie Guo has since “disappeared” from his home and that his whereabouts remain unknown. The Central Propaganda Department of the Communist Party is also investigating the case.

Nevertheless, the fiasco has provided ammunition for China’s newly reconstituted media watchdog to justify new censorship rules relating to the media.

Two days before Ta Kung Pao published the revelations about Xi’s incognito ride, the State General Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television published new directives that included a ban on Chinese media posting content online (i.e. on their weibo accounts) that was sourced from overseas media without government permission. As a Hong Kong publication, Ta Kung Pao has ‘proven’ such sources can be unreliable. Conspiracy theorists therefore see the timing of Ta Kung Pao’s public humbling as all a bit too convenient…

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