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Is That you, Bo Xilai? China’s Prisoners for Hire

In China, they're called ti-shen, or body doubles—people the rich and powerful hire to serve their sentences for them

It’s pretty clear that Bo Xilai, a former rising star of China’s Communist Party, will receive a hefty prison term when he is sentenced next week. After all, he was convicted of taking bribes worth more than 21 million yuan ($3.4 million), embezzling 5 million yuan of public money and trying to cover up the murder of a British businessman at the hands of his wife, Gu Kalai.

What’s unclear is whether Bo Xilai himself will actually do the time.

In China, they’re called ti-shen, or body doubles—people the rich and powerful hire to serve their sentences for them. In Bo’s case, suspicions are so strong that many users of Chinese social media outlet Weibo have demanded to see a photo of him in jail to verify he is actually there and not some destitute prisoner for hire.

23 Aug 2013, Brussels, Belgium --- China's then-Commerce Minister Bo Xilai briefs reporters in Brussels in this June 12, 2007 file photo. Bo put up a feisty defence on August 22, 2013 at the start of China's most political trial in decades, saying he was framed in bribery charges against him and had admitted to them under psychological pressure during interrogation. REUTERS/Francois Lenoir/Files (BELGIUM - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS HEADSHOT) --- Image by © FRANCOIS LENOIR/Reuters/Corbis
(Francois Lenoir/Corbis)

Even before Bo’s conviction, chatter about ti-shen grew so rampant that the Chinese government banned the term from the country’s search engines and social media outlets in August 2012.

The case that brought the alleged practice to public attention occurred in the coastal city of Hangzhou in 2009. A wealthy 20-year-old named Hu Bin was racing a customized Mitsubishi sports car through an intersection when he ran over and killed a man, then kept driving. He was sentenced to only three years in prison, which observers of the tragedy found infuriating enough. But the anger intensified when Hu appeared much heavier at his sentencing than in photos at the scene of the accident two months earlier. No one actually proved that another man had taken his place, but then again, chinese prison authorities never bothered to show it wasn’t true.

As Bo awaits his sentence, rumors are also rampant about his glamorous wife, who was charged with the murder of Neil Heywood and given a “suspended death sentence” in one of modern China’s most sensational public scandals that has drawn as much scrutiny abroad as it has domestically. Gu Kalai will serve a 14-year sentence in prison, unless she commits another crime in the next two years—in which case, she would be executed.

22 Aug 2013, Beijing, China --- China's then Chongqing Municipality Communist Party Secretary Bo Xilai (R) and his wife Gu Kailai pose for group photos at a mourning held for his father Bo Yibo, former vice-chairman of the Central Advisory Commission of the Communist Party of China, in Beijing in this January 17, 2007 file photo. Fallen Chinese politician Bo appeared in public for the first time in more than a year on August 22, 2013 to face trial in eastern China, the final chapter of the country's most politically charged case in more than three decades. Reuters/Corbis

Unlike her husband, who professed his innocence to every single charge against him, Gu did not protest in court. Some Chinese citizens were convinced that the docile woman on the stand acted and looked much different than the high-profile public figure they had known. “[Gu] appeared to have gained considerable weight, and a relative expressed shock, saying her face had changed dramatically since they had last met,” The New York Times reported.

Chinese citizens began posting their ding zui theories on the Internet, the BBC reported, suspecting that the woman on trial was not, in fact, Gu Kailai. We found several posts on a message board at hst1967.com, one of the only Chinese boards discussing ding zui that has not been taken down by the government. (According to a source in China, hst1967.com is inaccessible there, but we can read it here in New York City.) Like many other websites, the board displayed side-by-side images of the heavier woman in court and a more polished, thinner Gu.

09 Aug 2012, Hefei, Anhui Province, China --- Gu Kailai (front, C), wife of ousted Chinese Communist Party Politburo member Bo Xilai, attends a trial in the court room at Hefei Intermediate People's Court in this still image taken from video August 9, 2012. Gu did not raise objections in court on Thursday to charges against her of murdering a British businessman, a court official said. REUTERS/CCTV via Reuters TV (CHINA - Tags: CRIME LAW POLITICS) FOR EDITORIAL USE ONLY. NOT FOR SALE FOR MARKETING OR ADVERTISING CAMPAIGNS. THIS IMAGE HAS BEEN SUPPLIED BY A THIRD PARTY. IT IS DISTRIBUTED, EXACTLY AS RECEIVED BY REUTERS, AS A SERVICE TO CLIENTS. CHINA OUT. NO COMMERCIAL OR EDITORIAL SALES IN CHINA --- Image by © REUTERS TV/Reuters/Corbis
Jinan Intermediate People’s Court

“The ‘Gu Kailai’ in the photo has a nose that is clearly more meaty,” a member with the screen name Red Sheer wrote (in Chinese). “The Gu Kailai previously photographed with Bo Xilai definitely has a sharp nose. A few months on house arrest, no matter how good a life she’s living, even if she was fed exotic delicacies, swallow’s nest and shark fin, she wouldn’t have meat growing on the tip of her nose.”

One Chinese social media user even claimed to identify Gu’s body double as “46-year-old Langfang resident Zhao Tianyun”—but that name was promptly blocked from Chinese search engines.

While the press in Mainland China is heavily controlled, allegations of ding zui did make it into print in Taiwan. The newspaper Want China Times quoted Bo Xilai’s adopted sister, Yu Shuqin, saying the woman in court was not the real Gu Kailai. “It doesn’t matter how fat a woman becomes, the shape of her ears will never change,” she told the paper.

The suspicions that Gu, Bo and others can buy their way out of prison will no doubt further stir resentment—increasingly apparent even on heavily censored social media sites—about China’s growing income gap. The nation’s “1 percent” controls more than half of its wealth, a chasm right up there with leading capitalist nations.  According to Forbes, China has 122 billionaires, the second-largest concentration of billionaires in the world.

At the same time, 13 percent of the population lives on less than the equivalent of $1.25 a day. That makes for a lot of potential body doubles.

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  • “The nation’s “1 percent” controls more than half of its wealth” – really, 1% of the Chinese population?Out of 1 billion people? Seriously? This 1 percent meme is getting really tired.

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