BEIJING China's Internet was abuzz on Thursday over a report that President Xi Jinping, who is striving to portray himself as a humble man, had hailed a cab in Beijing last month. The report was later dismissed by state media as being false.
Many Chinese news portals, which had carried the story, removed it, including the website of the newspaper that wrote the original piece.
The report, which first appeared in the Beijing-backed Ta Kung Bao newspaper of Hong Kong, went viral on Chinese microblogs and the Internet before the official Xinhua news agency stepped in to say it was all untrue.
The Ta Kung Pao later posted an apology on its website.
"Because of our lapse, a significant false report appeared," the newspaper said. "For this, we sincerely apologise to our readers, We take this as a warning, and will return to producing accurate and rigorous reporting for the public."
The story had portrayed Xi, who has been keen to break from the stiff and aloof style of past leaders, as a man who takes random taxi rides and gives moderate tips.
The Ta Kung Pao said that China's new leader hailed a cab in the capital last month to take him to the Diaoyutai Hotel, part of the well-guarded state guesthouse.
Taxi driver Guo Lixin said he picked up two men, one of whom turned out to be Xi, who at the time was Chinese Communist Party secretary and was two weeks later named China's president.
"This is hilarious. It shows that people will believe anything," wrote one user on Sina Weibo, China's answer to Twitter, after Xinhua's denial.
(Reporting by Terril Yue Jones and Eleven Du; Editing by Jeremy Laurence)