Did the Wife of a Chinese Party Boss Use a Body Double at Her Murder Trial?

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
Aug. 24 2012 12:20 PM

Double Trouble in China

Gu Kailai was convicted of murder. But was that her at the trial or her body double?

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Most Gu body double rumors are anonymous Internet postings. Nevertheless, a handful of people have brought allegations to the press. The Sydney Morning Herald quotes a fervent Bo Xilai supporter as stating that it’s “highly likely that an imposter Gu replaced the real Gu” and that “this is a well-planned scheme.” A Taiwan newspaper quoted Internet postings by a person claiming to be Gu’s sister-in-law Yu Shuqin, denying that the woman in court was Gu: “It doesn’t matter how fat a woman becomes, the shape of her ears will never change.”

Why would Chinese authorities allow a body double to be used at all during a closely-watched, internationally broadcast court hearing?  Despite her crimes, the Bo family has tremendous clout. A body double might be permitted to protect Gu from even the minor indignity of attending a court hearing. Gu’s supporters speculate that Communist Party officials could have insisted on a docile stand-in to prevent Gu from being able to speak out in court.

On Aug. 19, the Financial Times published an article on the Gu Kailai case which included the brief and tantalizing sentence, “Two security experts familiar with facial recognition software said the person shown in state television footage of the courtroom was not Ms. Gu.” While the expert opinion cited by the Financial Times garnered a lot of attention, some critics pointed out that the experts did not indicate that they had actually conducted an analysis, and instead appeared to be offering their personal opinions.

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So what are we to think? Was it really Gu Kailai in the dock or not? We wanted to have an independent expert conduct a proper analysis, so we turned to Dr. Behnam Bavarian, the Managing Director of AFIS and Biometrics Consulting, and a recognized expert who has testified on facial recognition. Dr. Bavarian examined known photographs of Gu, as well as images of the woman who appeared as Gu in court. His analysis involved reviewing the “landmarks” in the face, and performing mathematical calculations to determine whether or not the compared faces fall within the range of a possible match. Dr. Bavarian used a method of analysis that he has helped develop for homeland security projects, in which images captured on video (which tend to be of poorer resolution) can nevertheless be compared to other known images of the suspect.

Dr. Bavarian concluded that Gu Kailai and the person appearing in court were “likely the same person.” Dr. Bavarian could not provide an answer with 100 percent certainty due to the relatively poor resolution of the images of the woman in court, which were taken from state television broadcasts. The calculations are sensitive to such issues as the person’s pose, tilt of the head, and lighting. None of these were ideal in this case. “I’m not saying it is the same person,” he emphasized. However, overall, the measurements of features on the face of the woman in court—such as the distance between specific places on the nose, eyes, and lips—were reasonably close matches to known photographs of Gu. Because the courtroom images showed “a high degree of similarity” to known images, “if I was testifying in court, I would say it is likely the same person.”

That probably won’t satisfy millions of suspicious Chinese netizens. But then again, they have been lied to so many times, who can blame them for seeing double?

Correction, Aug. 24, 2012: This article originally described Domingo Fernandez Navarrete as a Jesuit missionary. He was a Dominican missionary.

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.

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