A year ago, Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai had it all. The rising Chinese political star appeared to be on the cusp of joining the country’s most exclusive club: the nine-member Standing Committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo. Last February, however, the chief of police in his city took refuge in the U.S. consulate, bringing with him a remarkable story: that Bo Xilai’s wife had murdered Neil Heywood, a British businessman. Now Bo has been stripped of all political positions. His wife Gu Kailai, in perhaps the most anticipated show-trial since the prosecution of the Gang of Four in 1981, received a suspended death sentence for the murder charge. For Bo Xilai, it has been the best of times and the worst of times—and just like that Dickens novel, everything might end up with a body double receiving the death sentence.
Earlier this month, Slate reported how China’s rich and powerful can hire body doubles to stand in for them at court and in prison. China’s tradition of substitute criminals—and even substitute executions—dates at least as far back as the mid-1600s, when the early Dominican missionary Domingo Fernandez Navarrete expressed shock at the “ease and frequency with which wealthy convicts hired proxies to suffer punishments on their behalf.”* To put it another way, this practice, called ding zui in Chinese, has flourished in China for longer than the United States has existed.
The most recent allegations of a substitute criminal began the moment people saw Gu Kailai enter the courtroom. Gu’s appearance had changed so much that even her own relatives were confused. The New York Times reported that Gu “appeared to have gained considerable weight, and a relative expressed shock, saying her face had changed dramatically since they had last met.” The Wall Street Journal wrote that Gu was “a bit heavier and less glamorous than in photographs of her that have been published in news stories around the world since the scandal broke,” adding the explanation that most of the photographs “were taken between five and 15 years ago ...”
Many in China, however, felt Gu looked different because she was different. Western expatriates were soon “abuzz with talk that the woman who appeared in the dock” may be a body double. Chinese netizens began posting and circulating accusations of a criminal stand-in, which were quickly censored by the government, only to live on in snippet form as Google caches. For example, the cached form of one now-erased message containing hits for “Gu Kailai” and “ding zui” begins: “I used to hear old folks talk about how in the old days, when somebody committed a crime, they could spend money and buy a person to be their substitute. Today, there are still people who can spend money and buy a person to be their substitute …” (Clicking the link, however, results in the message: “Sorry! The page you are looking for doesn’t exist or has been deleted.”)
This Web page, which has so far survived, claims to show images of “The Real and Fake Gu Kailai,” asserting: “No matter how a person’s face might change, the facial structure, eyes, and the distance between the eyebrows remains the same. The angles of the photograph might have some effect on one’s appearance, but even so, the tip of an adult’s nose is never going to change. The photo of ‘Gu Kailai’ in court shows a nose that is clearly rounded and full with flesh at its tip, while the Gu Kailai in the photo with Bo Xilai has a sharply pointed nose.”
One viral rumor, remarkably detailed in its allegations, displays side-by-side images of the woman in court and Gu, together with the headline: “Huge News: The woman who is the body double for Gu Kailai is a roughly 46 year-old Langfang resident named Zhao Tianyun.” A subheading urges the public to work together through crowd-sourcing to solve the body double mystery. Several paragraphs then describe how the author supposedly learned from a friend working in the Chinese government that Zhao Tianyun was Gu’s body double, and that the real Gu is still living in Beijing. Apparently to prevent this message from spreading, the Chinese government has blocked all searches for the term “ti-shen” (body double), a phrase appearing within this message, as well as searches for the name Zhao Tianyun.
While China certainly has substitute criminals—the media occasionally reports arrests of some would-be substitutes—it is difficult to estimate the frequency of the practice. With ding zui, the whole purpose of the crime is to prevent people from knowing it has even occurred. Since the only known instances of ding zui are those that have been solved, it is difficult to know whether it is a frequent crime rarely discovered or whether it is a rare crime frequently foiled. Further complicating things, wealthy and powerful families who can arrange criminal substitutes seem unlikely to be exposed by the police, government officials, or media.