To the long list of things that have become taboo in the case of Gu Kailai, the recently convicted murderer and wife of ousted Communist Party official Bo Xilai, you can now add the Chinese term for “body double.”
Sina Weibo, China’s most active microblogging service, and Baidu, its largest Internet search engine, have both blocked the term tishen (替身, literally “body replacement”) after a barrage of citizens began questioning whether the woman shown standing in the courtroom during one of the most sensational trials in recent Chinese history was really Ms. Gu.
Ms. Gu, 53, was given a suspended death sentence on Monday after she confessed to the killing in November of Neil Heywood, a British business consultant who had been part of her and her husband’s inner circle.
Ever since the trial began earlier this month, Chinese Internet users have passed around a composite photo contrasting the plump, puffy-cheeked Ms. Gu who appeared at the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court in China’s eastern Anhui province with an earlier image of her in which she appears as the poised, sharp-featured attorney referred to by some as China’s Jackie Kennedy.
“Gu Kailai’s impostor is 46 year-old Langfang resident Zhao Tianyun,” a caption superimposed on the picture claimed.
The Chinese characters for Zhao Tianyun have also recently been blocked as a search term on Sina Weibo.
While no convincing evidence has emerged to suggest that the body double is anything but a paranoid fantasy, doubts and disbelief surrounding Ms. Gu’s identity point to a broader apprehension in China surrounding the country’s legal procedures and the credibility of the country’s justice system. A lack of legal transparency has opened space for scepticism, particularly in a society in which elites are often exempt from laws or are able to wiggle out of harsh punishments in ways not available to ordinary citizens.
Among the cases that has most helped feed that scepticism is one that occurred in the wealthy coastal city of Hangzhou in 2009, in which the child of a well-to-do local merchant ran over and killed a young man from the countryside while racing a customised Mitsubishi sports car through a cross-walk. Observers were outraged after police and the courts appeared to try to shield the driver, Hu Bin, who was sentenced to three years in prison.
Mr. Hu, then 20 years old, appeared much heavier at his sentencing than in photos taken at the scene of the accident two months earlier, prompting speculation that his family had hired another man to take his place.
While weight gain is also driving the body double theories in Ms. Gu’s case, many have attributed her added heft what state media described as “a certain degree of dependence” on sedatives, antidepressants and antipsychotics.
Both antidepressants and antipsychotics have been linked to rapid weight gain.
While mainland Chinese media have steered well clear of questions about Ms. Gu’s identity, media in Hong Kong and Taiwan have freely debated the topic in stories that are accessible to those on the mainland with technology to circumvent China’s Internet controls.
A story in Taiwanese newspaper Want China Times, for example, said Bo Xilai’s adopted sister Yu Shuqin had declared the woman in who appeared in court an impostor. “It doesn’t matter how fat a woman becomes, the shape of her ears will never change,” the report quoted Ms. Yu as saying.
Still, there are those who insist that the Ms. Gu shown in courtroom photos and footage is the real deal. Chinese reporter Jiang Weiping, who built his career in Mr. Bo’s old stomping grounds of Dalian, in China’s northeast, and who was arrested after exposing in a series of articles Mr. Bo’s power abuse, said there was no doppelganger used.
“I know her too well,” said Mr. Jiang, who has been living in Canada for several years. “That’s her.”
While it’s conceivable a body double might be hired to serve Ms. Gu’s prison term, others have argued, it wouldn’t make much sense for her to be represented by someone else during the trial itself, unless her mental state made her truly unpresentable.
By blocking searches online, of course, China’s censors could end up just feeding the conspiracy theories further.
This practice is referred to as Ding Zui in Chinese.Laurie Burkit
Wall Street Journal
- China court hands Gu Kailai death sentence with reprieve (chinadailymail.com)
- Brit businessman Neil Heywood killer Gu Kailai ‘used body double’ (thesun.co.uk)
- Gu Kailai Impostor Rumors Won’t go Away (theatlanticwire.com)
- Gu Kailai and the body double debate (bbc.co.uk)