Xi Jinping, China's president. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg
Xi Jinping, China's president. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

Beijing’s taxi drivers are most notable for two characteristics. First, they know and love their politics. Rightly or wrongly, they tend to consider themselves among the city’s most astute analysts of what’s happening behind the Communist Party’s many closed doors. Second, they have an almost supernatural capacity to recognize gullible passengers whom they can plunder with longer-than-necessary rides (while telling tales of the city’s powerful).

Thus it comes to pass that Guo Lixin, formerly an anonymous Beijing cabbie, set off a Chinese media firestorm on Thursday in China by fooling two of the Communist Party’s most prominent media outlets into believing that Chinese president Xi Jinping waved down his taxi for a ride to a hotel.

As recounted by Guo to the Ta Kung Pao newspaper (the story has since been deleted), the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece in Hong Kong, Xi, accompanied by an unidentified man (a guard perhaps), waved down Guo’s taxi far from his official residence on March 1. He didn’t identify himself, but rather, like any other civic-minded Beijinger, chatted with the driver about the ever-present smog.

Guo smartly kept his eyes on the road, not his passengers, but after some time it dawned on him that somebody familiar was in his backseat. “Has anyone ever told you that you look like General Secretary Xi?” he asked. In response, Xi, with a chuckle, conceded: “You are the first taxi driver to recognize me.”

It was an answer a senior Chinese propaganda official could only wish to have written. Xi (as channeled by Guo) not only hinted at other populist taxi rides but also gave a coy nod in the direction of the 18th-century Emperor Qianlong, who was famous for going incognito among his subjects. In recent years, those incognito forays have become the subject of wildly popular films and television melodramas in which Qianlong is depicted uncovering the official corruption and rot that’s hidden from him by his position and underlings. For Xi, the parallel would have been a flattering one that enhances the corruption-fighting man-of-the-people persona that he’s carefully cultivated during the early months of his government.

But alas, it was a parallel -- and an entire story -- invented by the taxi driver.

All morning in China, Guo’s story (as recounted in Ta Kung Pao), trended on the top of Chinese social media platforms as netizens busied themselves with an in-depth conversation on Xi’s populist credentials and sympathies and on whether taxi rides should be taken as sincere expressions of identification with the lives of ordinary Chinese.

The story and the reaction was so convincingly favorable to Xi and the Communist Party that later in the day, Xinhua, the party’s cautious official newswire announced that it had confirmed driver Guo’s story with the Beijing transport authorities. This was quite remarkable: Xinhua and other high-level Chinese news organizations don’t report on Xi or other top leadership without vetting of the stories at the highest levels.

Perhaps editors at Xinhua and Ta Kung Pao assumed that the story (or, from their perspective, the propaganda) was just too professional not to have been approved by the relevant organs. Unfortunately for them, it wasn’t, and by the end of the day both organizations had confirmed the story was fake, deleted their accounts of it and -- in the case of Ta Kung Pao -- apologized. No word, yet, on how Guo is being treated in the aftermath. If the authorities have any sense at all, they’ll send him to work at Central Propaganda Department immediately.

(Adam Minter is the Shanghai correspondent for the World View blog and a contributor to the Ticker. Follow him on Twitter.)