In China, the rich and powerful can hire body doubles to do their prison time for them.
“Replacement convicts” are not new. For centuries, the use of criminal substitutes was among the first things Westerners would mention when discussing China’s legal system. Missionary and traveler Karl Gützlaff in 1834, French legal scholar Édouard Louis Joseph Bonnier in 1862, and American scholar Owen Lattimore in the 1930s wrote about the practice. In 1895, Taiwan missionary George Mackay described witnessing these replacement convicts: “It was an open secret that these men had nothing to do with the case, but were bribed to wear the cangue for six weeks.” In 1899, Ernest Alabaster, a scholar of Chinese criminal law, wrote that courts “permitted” the real offenders to hire substitutes, and that such things “frequently happen, have for long happened, and—notwithstanding Imperial decrees to the contrary—will, under the system, always happen.” Supposedly, the going rate in 1848 for a replacement convict was 17 pounds, which would come to roughly $2,000 in present-day dollars.
Incredibly, substitutes could be hired even for executions. Nineteenth-century traveler Julius Berncastle, the Qing Dynasty author De Fu, and the legal scholar John Bruce Norton each described substitute executions as regular events. This 1883 report from the Board of Punishments demanded an inquiry into how a youth named Wang Wen-shu “was wrongly convicted” and “was on the point of being executed as a substitute for one Hu T’ian, whose alias he was falsely declared to be.” T. T. Meadows, the British diplomat who convinced Western nations to copy China’s system of civil-service exams, argued that the phenomenon of substitute executions was not as surprising as it might seem. If a family is starving, wouldn’t many parents accept execution in exchange for enough money to save their children?
Some imperial Chinese officials who admitted to the use of substitute criminals justified its effectiveness. After all, the real criminal was punished by paying out the market value of his crime, while the stand-in’s punishment intimidated other criminals, keeping the overall crime rate low. In other words, a “cap-and-trade” policy for crime.
With China zigzagging from the extreme capitalism of hiring criminal substitutes to the extremes of communism, one might have thought ding zui would cease to exist. But with the return of capitalism, substitute criminals soon followed.
Nevertheless, this “trick” is becoming increasingly difficult to pull off thanks to the Internet. Chinese netizens can easily circulate photos to compare the image of an alleged perpetrator with the person who shows up in court. In fact, that happened in the case of Hu Bin, the drag racer who killed a pedestrian. Here are posted comparison photographs of Hu in his car after the accident and the man who appeared and reported to be Hu in the courtroom, with the simple questions: “Is this the same fucking person???? Is all of China blind?”
This website provides four photos: the mystery man in court; Hu after the accident; Hu in daily life; and a man alleged to be the substitute. The author notes distinctions between the men’s weight and the distances between the eyebrows, and cites an Internet survey in which 130 people felt the man in court was Hu, and 8,873 concluded he was a substitute.
To be clear, not everyone is convinced that Hu’s family hired a stand-in. Judicial authorities insist the man sentenced was Hu, and the police officer I spoke with agreed. “This case is not one of ding zui. That family has only a moderate amount of wealth, and they don’t have any political power. The photos of the man in the car and in the court look like different people, but it’s just the camera angle and lighting,” he told me. The officer didn’t deny there may have been corruption involved. “There’s definitely something going on there. His sentence was just three years, which is very light, so maybe they have some kind of connections.”
It’s been three years since Hu’s sentencing, so last month someone walked free from prison.
But the question remains: Who was it?
Geoffrey Sant is a frequent commentator on CCTV, Phoenix Television, Global Times, and other Chinese-language media, and his Chinese-language writings have been published in Zhong-guo Shi-bao, Zhong-yang Ri-bao, and in an anthology of the year’s best Chinese-language writing. He is also a director of the New York Chinese Cultural Center.