BEIJING -- A Beijing-backed Hong Kong newspaper's report that Chinese President Xi Jinping took a mystery cab ride last month prompted an unusual denial from China's official Xinhua News Agency on Thursday, although the origins of the strange tale remain murky.
The Ta Kung Pao newspaper reported Thursday that Xi took the 26-minute, 8.2-kilometer (5-mile) ride on the evening of March 1 as claimed by taxi driver Guo Lixin. The report said Xi was accompanied by another passenger who rode in the front passenger seat, but who wasn't further identified.
The report said that after talking about Beijing's pollution, Guo took a closer look at his back-seat passenger and said: "When you take cars, does anyone tell you you look like a certain person? Anyone ever say you look like General Secretary Xi?"
Along with the story, the newspaper posted on its website a graphic of the route the cab supposedly took from Beijing's Drum Tower neighborhood, which is just north of the central leadership compound, to the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse Hotel. Photos showed Guo pointing to a framed handwritten note on a piece of white paper supposedly from Xi that read, "Safe and smooth journey," in Chinese.
Later Thursday, a Xinhua reporter who covers transportation issues posted a statement on Weibo, China's popular Twitter-like website, saying Beijing transport authorities confirmed the trip, but it was swiftly deleted. Xinhua then issued a statement saying further checking showed the report was false.
By 6 p.m., the newspaper had issued an apology and removed the content from its website. "After checking, this is false news. We are deeply disturbed and extremely regretful," the apology said.
The report generated suspicions among some Chinese readers almost from the start, in part because Xi supposedly hailed and got a taxi at rush hour on a Friday in Beijing, a usually difficult time to find a cab. A call to the Shengdali taxi company, where Guo supposedly works, to ask about Xi's alleged ride was answered by a woman who said, "I don't know about this," and then hung up.
It wasn't clear how a newspaper that has close links to China's ruling Communist Party and is usually considered authoritative on political matters would run a false report, especially one so apparently bizarre.
While Xi has sought to portray himself as in-touch with regular people, Chinese leaders are surrounded by heavy security at all times, and it would be highly unusual for him to take public transport. China's former emperors were known for sometimes sneaking out of their palaces incognito to have fun or conduct secret inspections, but it is difficult to imagine the head of the party, military and world's second-largest economy taking such a risk.