What everybody on the Chinese Internet was talking about yesterday was an incognito taxi trip taken by the country’s new president Xi Jinping. Ta Kung Pao, a Chinese government-backed newspaper in Hong Kong, dedicated a whole webpage, with fancy infographics, to report on how an ordinary taxi driver in Beijing, while half way to the destination, found that he had the country’s General Secretary at the back of his cab.
It was a story full of nice little details. Xi handwrote a blessing to the taxi driver to wish him a smooth ride. The note was later made into a bigger copy, framed and hung on the wall. In a country with no culture of tipping, the big boss told the driver to “keep the change”. And the best part of the story, also netizens’ favorite, is the following conversation:
“Has anyone ever told you that you look like General Secretary Xi?” The Taxi driver asked.
“You are the first taxi driver who recognized me.” Xi grinned.
The story soon spread like a wild fire, quoted and shared by almost all Chinese media, which, at the time, had no doubt at all that the news could be fake. Xinhua News, the official voice of the Chinese government, even posted on its official Weibo account (China’s Twitter) that they have successfully verified the authenticity of the story. It was also Xihua that announced the news a hoax only hours later. Till now, Ta Kung Pao has apologized and retracted the news. All Weibo posts with mentions of the story were deleted.
Was the news truly fake? Knowing China’s tight grip on news of its officials, it’s hard to believe that a fake news of the country’s president and party chief was allowed to fly for nearly a whole day. If it was, who was behind it? Did the taxi driver lie? Did the journalist fabric all? If it wasn’t, why did Xinhua call it a hoax?
All kinds of questions and doubts are in the air. At this point, the public may never learn about the truth. But one telling fact is that most netizens, even those often very critical of the government, bought into the story almost immediately and applauded Xi’s move.
Incognito trip is a tactic commonly used by emperors in Qing Dynasty as a way to listen to the true voices of the people and observe local government performance. Emperor Qianlong and Kangxi are the two best-known emperors who loved to take such trips. Their “travel in pain clothes” stories were made into several popular TV series in which they fought local corruption and helped the poor or the oppressed. Of course, there were also emperors who did so to temporarily escape the strenuous life in the Forbidden City. But by and large, when an emperor is said to take an incognito trip, it suggests that he is a good leader who is down to earth and willing to get close with the people.
When first seeing the news, many Chinese netizens commented that they finally got a president who was “the people’s guy.” Even many of those who usually hold a very critical view of the government thought that Xi did a great thing and that China needs more officials willing to “take a taxi” just like an average guy. So it isn’t hard to image that when the story was announced fake, many were disappointed. Like netizen 辽宁深海 commented: “It’s such a pity that the news was fake. How I wish it was true. I just talked with my friend over dinner about how good it would be if someday, I can run into President Xi or Premier Li on the subway. When I learned that it was fake, I felt like being soaked in cold water from head to toe.”
旁观者马勇, professor at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, pointed out: “The news is fake, and it’s unforgivable. But people’s expectations are real.”
Indeed, expectations for Xi have always been high. As someone who himself has suffered during the Culture Revolution, Xi is expected to better know the limits of power and be a true reformist to bring real changes to China’s political system and to improve China’s many problems.
Besides, there is also a Chinese citizen’s general hope for a earthy leader. News about London Mayor riding a bike and New York Mayor taking the subway to work have long been popular stories among Chinese netizens. They look up to, and are jealous of a system capable of producing leaders who are just like every other guy on the street. Xi Jinping may or may not have taken a taxi ride on that Beijing afternoon, but he surely should try one in the future.
The taxi driver who supposedly gave Xi Jinping a ride pointed to a note that was said to be handwritten by Xi.