In China, countless television soap operas have been based on the adventures of Emperor Kangxi, a Qing ruler in the 17th century who, according to legend, would slip off his yellow dragon-embroidered silk robes to travel incognito among his people.
For several hours Thursday, a story went viral on the Chinese Internet that the new Communist equivalent of the emperor, President Xi Jinping, had pulled the same trick.
At first it seemed that Ta Kung Pao, a Hong Kong daily, had a big scoop, with its tale of how taxi driver Guo Lixin had picked up Xi and ferried him to the Diaoyutai hotel, part of the state guesthouse.
The story claimed the Guo realized this was no ordinary fare when – in response to the taxi driver’s complaints about the pollution — the mystery passenger launched into a spirited defense of government policy.
According to the newspaper, the driver asked, “Has anyone ever said that you look like General Secretary Xi?” Guo’s passenger then chuckled, saying, “You are the first one to ever recognize me.”
The story went viral, though sharp-eyed netizens commented on how the handwriting on the message (“Safe Sailing”) left for the driver by “President Xi” didn’t seem to match known samples of presidential scrawl.
At first, Beijing’s traffic department confirmed the news. Then it was denied by the state news agency, Xinhua, which labeled it “fake news.” The Ta Kung Pao issued a groveling apology: “Such a major case of false news should absolutely never have happened.”
And so the newest urban legend of the Chinese President Who Took a Taxi was officially shut down.
Not wasting any time, the censorship police have already ensured that “Take a taxi” and “Safe Sailing” are already banned searches on China’s equivalent of Twitter.
But perhaps even more interesting is just how many people wanted this story to be true.
Apart from the historical parallels, such behavior would have been in line with the man-of-the-people moves that Xi has taken since taking over as Communist Party chief last November.
He’s declared war on official extravagance, calling for an end to big entourages and motorcades. The official banqueting policy of frugality has been dubbed “fur dishes and a soup.”
And on China’s version of Twitter, the story of Xi’s taxi ride won him plaudits from many, with comments such as “The king now cares more and more about the subjects’ lives.”
But had President Xi really taken a taxi, it might not have been such a bad thing. Since 1949, China’s top leaders have lived in Zhongnanhai, a leafy compound once part of the imperial Forbidden City.
It is normally closed to outsiders, but after a decade of reporting in China, I had my first glimpse in this Communist Forbidden City on Saturday, when I accompanied the delegation of U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry, who was meeting Chinese Premier Li Keqiang.
The heart of Zhongnanhai is completely tranquil; an expanse of lake serves to silence the bustle of city life. For a scant half hour, I experienced the dislocation one feels from being physically isolated – partitioned off by walls and lakes – from the world outside. That is both an enormous privilege, and an enormous problem, for China’s rulers.