BEIJING (Reuters) - When the Chinese government said scandalous TV footage of a Beijing snack vendor stuffing steamed buns with flavored cardboard was a hoax, some quipped that even the news in China is fake.
But since the authorities detained hidden-camera-wielding reporter Zi Beijia and a handful of others last week, many ordinary Chinese have said they doubt the government's line and believe the story of the cardboard "baozi", as the buns are called in Mandarin.
True or not, the original report came at a sensitive time, with China under mounting pressure from abroad over food and product safety scandals and just days after the government blasted foreign media for blowing the story out of proportion.
The General Administration of Press and Publication said on Monday that reporters should learn a "serious lesson" from the incident and ensure the authenticity of their reports, state broadcaster CCTV said.
Top television officials in Beijing have received warnings or criticism from the administration, one deputy editor has resigned and three other staff have been sacked, the report said.
People are even being encouraged to unmask other fake stories, with CCTV unveiling a list of telephone numbers people could call.
Still, suspicion of the government's denial of the story, and arrests, highlights an underlying skepticism that many Chinese have towards government propaganda.
"Anyone who uses their nose on this one would know that the report was definitely real," a posting by someone called "Rat Head" on the Web site www.tianya.cn said, adding that the government's rejection gave the story more credibility.
"They're addicted to fooling the people, and it really seems like they think the people are idiots!"
"Killing a chicken to scare a monkey," said another Tianya post, invoking the Chinese idiom for making an example of someone. "Poor journalists. Poor journalists. Will you ever tell the truth again?"
"Baozi with cardboard in them have been around for many years already, how can this be fake?" another person posted on an electronic bulletin board on the popular Web site Sohu.com.
Others were less worried about the details.
"If there's fake news, then surely there must be fake food, or should we just eat everything without worrying?" a person called "sj101" said on the Web site of the state broadcaster that ran the report nationwide, China Central Television.
In China, where political decisions are made in a black box, conspiracy theories abound. Some have even put forward the theory that the government may have set the reporter up in the first place to bring him down as an example of why the public should not trust media reports on food safety.
Erring on the side of caution, "Jialanbuku" said on Sohu.com: "In this era of fake products running wild, I'd say it's better to believe the report than not."
Additional reporting by Vivi Lin and Ben Blanchard