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Anxious Objects: Crime and Punishment in China

Economic development in China is producing some of the greatest income disparity the world has seen. Growing along the inequality is a pervasive and palpable anxiety around political corruption, the abuse of power by the ultra-wealthy, and the difficulties for the average citizen to attain economic security in the midst of the fastest growing economy in history.

The notion of the body-double (替身) is one object through which these anxieties around inequality, corruption and the economic elite circulate.  Body-doubles are purported to be in wide use in China – paid ‘stand-ins’ hired by the wealthy to serve their time in prison.

For example, in 2009 a young, wealthy student in Hangzhou named Hu Bin, struck and killed a 25 year old man in his imported Japanese racing car, hurling his body over 20 yards.  After killing the man, Hu and his friends casually leaned on their cars, smoking cigarettes and laughing while the police and paramedics arrived. After the police suggested in their preliminary investigation that Hu was only travelling 47 mph, netizens hurled accusations of a police cover up.  Hu was eventually convicted of a reckless driving charge, and given a light 3-year prison sentence. After Hu showed up in court looking significantly different than he had on the day of the accident however, netizens were suspicious.  Had Hu and his ultra-wealthy family hired a body double to serve the time for him?

Hu Bin's Body Double?

Whether or not body-doubles are in actual use in the Chinese judicial system is up for debate (despite the title of this slate article). Regardless of their reality however, the Chinese state does not take the term lightly, banning netizens from searching it.  How does the term body-double manage to get itself to sit along side a list of banned terms that includes the likes of ‘Tiananmen’?

The notion of the body-double is so powerful because of the way in which it encapsulates the debates and anxieties around development.  On the surface it is a story about how the rich in China are so wealthy that they can literally kill an average citizen and get away with it. While this idea is powerful on its own, it is also the way in which the idea of body-doubles gets entangled with other stories about development that make them such a contested object. The murdered man, it turns out, was a migrant come to the city to find love and a stable job, only to have his life cut short by a 20 year old rich kid drag-racing his imported car.  Most scathing, another poor migrant is said to to be the body-double, willing to sacrifice 3 years of his life for his own small slice of China’s economic pie.

Far Left: A potential body-double candidate, Center: Hu Bin or his body double?, Right: Hu Bin

In the object of the body-double then, multiple real and imagined discourses of Chinese modernity circulate, with all their vicious critiques: the accumulated money and connections of the wealthy lets them literally pass through jail walls that enclose the poor, the broken promises of development have led to some citizens (especially migrants) to literally sell their bodies, while the bodies of other migrants are literal fodder on the road paved by rapid economic growth. 

What, if anything, is to be salvaged from this anxious object? Perhaps the very naming of this pseudo-magical phenomenon itself is a weapon.  The discourse of the body-double opens up and sustains a conversation about corruption, the dangers of hyper-accumulation, and problems of a closed judicial system.  Furthermore, the associated techniques used by netizens of photographic comparison demands the re-grounding of the almost magical powers of the wealthy in ‘real’ bodies that must suffer the vicissitudes of life. These discourses and techniques may not be enough to overhaul the politics of development in China, but they do suggest contested visions of an emerging Chinese modernity.

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