Gu Kailai and the body double debate

Gu Kailai pictured in 2012 (L) and 2007 (R) Observers said Gu Kailai in court looked different from previous photos

When Gu Kailai was given a suspended death sentence for the murder of British business man Neil Heywood, speculation began that the woman in court was a body double. So what do these kinds of suspicions tell us about modern China?

As soon as footage of Gu Kailai appeared in the official report of the trial, rumours began to circulate on the internet about the identity of the woman in the dock.

Several posts and re-posts surfaced on Chinese social media sites on the same day, with a screen grab of the courtroom scene, suggesting that the woman - who appeared plumper than Gu - was a body double.

One internet user posted some "before and after" photos and asked: "Are we looking at the same woman? There are rumours that the woman who appeared in the court room is a body double, because whether you are thin or fat, your bone structure shouldn't change."

Some questioned whether this was indeed Gu Kailai

Another user said: "Please note the corner of the mouth, the bags under the eyes and the ears, especially the ears. You might flatten the bags, but you can't change the shape of your ears."

This kind of speculation continued through the verdict and sentencing on 20 August and then newspapers joined the fray. One Hong Kong paper - Apple Daily - even reported rumours on 21 August that the stand-in was named Zhao Tianyun, who had been hand-picked by the wife of premier Wen Jiabao.

But the paper also quotes journalist Jiang Weiping, who was in contact with Gu and her husband Bo Xilai for a number of years, as saying that judging by the face and the gestures, it was really Gu.

How can you tell for sure?

Biometrics scanning of eyes

2D face recognition involves making a unique template from measurements between key points on the face.

This can be done from a live image or from a clear photograph.

The speculation also extended overseas - Britain's Financial Times went as far as to consult two security experts familiar with facial recognition software who concluded that the person shown in state television footage of the trial was not Gu.

So do Chinese netizens really believe that a body double was used to shield Gu, or do they simply want to express their mistrust of the judicial system and of the authorities in general?

The answer perhaps lies in another microblog post by the famous Chinese writer Zhang Yihe.

"There are a lot of questions: did Chinese hurdler Liu Xiang put on a show during the Olympics? Did swimmer Ye Shiwen take drugs? Did Gu Kailai herself attend the trial?" she asked.

"All this reminds us of an ancient fable - crying wolf. In the story the boy only lied once, and nobody believed him afterwards and he was eaten by a wolf.

"The Chinese propaganda machine is luckier - they have been telling lies for over 60 years, and now, everything they say is doubted."

Liu Xiang and Ye Shiwen competing at the London 2012 Olympics Even Chinese sporting heroes are subject to scepticism

In fact, Chinese netizens are sceptical about many other aspects of the trial as well. Many think it was overtly political, with no judicial independence and the verdict was a foregone conclusion.

Others are not convinced about the motive presented in the courtroom for killing Neil Heywood, and it is not clear what role, if any, Gu's husband - a former high-flying politician - had in the dispute between his wife and the British businessman.

This is also not the first time in China that questions have been raised about the identity of the person in the dock.

Elsewhere on the web

The wealthy and influential in China can pay lookalikes to serve their prison sentences, writes Geoffrey Sant, in Slate magazine.

The persistent rumours say more about the atmosphere of mistrust of the Chinese justice system than they do about the actual evidence of a conspiracy, says Adam Martin, writing for the Atlantic Wire.

The search term for "body replacement" has now been blocked in China, reported the China Daily Mail on 22 August, after a number of internet users started speculating about the identity of the woman in the courtroom.

In 2009, wealthy 20-year-old Hu Bin killed a pedestrian on the streets of Hangzhou. When the court passed a three-year sentence, allegations surfaced that the man who appeared in court and served the sentence was a hired body double. The authorities had to robustly refute such claims.

Underlying such allegations is a deeply-rooted mistrust of the authorities, the unfairness of the justice system and a perception that the wealthy can escape justice. People tend to err on the side of doubting than believing the official version of anything.

Gu's trial was over in seven hours, with only a selected few to witness the proceedings, and both Chinese and foreign journalists were turned away at the door.

There has been very little media coverage about the trial except some standard pieces by Xinhua, the state news agency, that all media outlets dutifully carry. There have been few editorials or commentaries, compared with the extensive coverage over other issues such as the ongoing territorial dispute with Japan.

It is only natural that Weibo, the Chinese version of Twitter, has become one of the few places where ordinary people talk about the trial and express their concerns. Now the phrase "body double" is blocked, however.

As to whether the real Gu or a stand-in appeared in court, one can say that the only pictures available from before the trial were taken several years ago, and show a successful lawyer at the peak of her career with a seemingly happy family. So it is possible that time and events have caught up with her.

One should also consider the enormous risks the authorities would have to take for a body double to appear, and wonder what benefit they would gain.

Still, those in power can learn a lot from these episodes on how they can build up public confidence and stop the "crying wolf" vicious circle.

Yuwen Wu works for BBC Chinese

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