HONG KONG -- For much of Thursday, a tale told by a Beijing taxi driver appeared to offer ideal political theater for the Chinese government: a humble cabby took the nation's top leader, Xi Jinping, for an incognito ride and revealed Mr. Xi's yearning to share the pain, and the congested streets, of a frustrated public.
Taxis in China's capital are notoriously hard to flag down, but chauffeur-driven officials rarely need a ride, and the chief of the Communist Party even less often. So when Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper loyal to Beijing, published a detailed report about a $4.40 taxi ride that Mr. Xi and a colleague took in early March, chatting with the driver, Guo Lixin, about pollution and other woes, Chinese news Web sites celebrated the story as an example of Mr. Xi's refreshingly down-to-earth style.
By the end of the day, however, the state-run news media, which had initially given credence to the story, abruptly reversed course, and the tale was in shreds. The newspaper withdrew the report as false, and it and the news agency Xinhua were pilloried online, leaving China to ask a bizarre question: What does it mean when feel-good propaganda cannot be trusted even on its own fanciful terms?
"Real one moment, and bogus the next," a Chinese writer, Cao Junshu, wrote on Sina Weibo, the country's Twitter-like service. "Are you the authority for publishing real news, or fake news?"
Xinhua, citing city transportation authorities and the Hong Kong newspaper, at first confirmed the story via a bulletin on its feed on Sina Weibo. But a later Xinhua bulletin said the story was false, and Ta Kung Pao removed the report from its Web site.
"Checking has established that this was a false report, and we feel deeply distressed and extremely regretful about this," the newspaper said in a statement on its Web site. "Such a major case of false news should absolutely never have happened."
The taxi ride had appeared to be one in a succession of common-man gestures that Mr. Xi had made since November, when he succeeded Hu Jintao as party leader. In March, Mr. Xi took over as president from Mr. Hu, a stiffly austere politician. Seeking to win over Chinese disenchanted by a political elite that seems aloof, Mr. Xi has demanded an end to banquets paid for by the government, and he has told officials to stop having the police close off roads when the officials travel.
Some Chinese at first praised Mr. Xi's reported adventure as a break from the security that swaddles him and other Communist Party leaders. His "incognito trip" quickly dominated many Chinese news Web sites, which cited the Ta Kung Pao report, and The New York Times was among the foreign news media outlets that reported on the story.
"It looks like Ta Kung Pao was fooled, but why then did Xinhua first say it was true?" said Chen Yongmiao, a rights advocate from Beijing who frequently comments on the Internet. "Fake or real, I think this episode will add to the arguments that Xi shouldn't violate the traditional bureaucratic ways. It will be used to tell him to toe that old line."
Ta Kung Pao thought enough of Mr. Xi's purported ride to put up a special Web page, showing a map of the journey and pictures of Mr. Guo's modest brick-and-concrete home in the rural northeastern outskirts of Beijing. The newspaper reported that at first, Mr. Guo did not recognize Mr. Xi.
"I asked, 'When you take a cab has anyone ever said you look like a certain man?' " Mr. Guo was said to have told the newspaper. " 'Anyone ever said you look like General Secretary Xi?' He listened and laughed and said, 'You're the first taxi driver to recognize me.' "
The special site was later taken down. Calls to the company said to operate the taxi driven by Mr. Guo were not answered during the day, and he could not be tracked down. It is possible that Mr. Guo does not exist; the special report, while detailed, gave no clues about his address or whereabouts.
A Ta Kung Pao employee, answering the phone at the newspaper's offices in Beijing, declined to answer questions about the episode. The man, who gave his surname as Xu, said it was "inconvenient to reply" to questions about what had gone awry.
Even before the report was taken down, some were skeptical, both online and on the streets of the Chinese capital.
"I don't believe you," Wang Yue, a Beijing cabby, said in an interview after being told of the incognito ride. "President Xi out by himself? Without all his bodyguards? Was the taxi followed by vans full of security guards? There is no way President Xi was taking taxis with only another person."
Jonathan Ansfield contributed reporting from Beijing. Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.world
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.