"Replacement convicts" are not new. For centuries, the use of criminal substitutes was among the first things Westerners would mention when discussing China’s legal system. Missionary and traveler Karl Gützlaff in 1834, French legal scholar Édouard Louis Joseph Bonnier in 1862, and American scholar Owen Lattimore in the 1930s wrote about the practice. In 1895, Taiwan missionary George Mackay described witnessing these replacement convicts: "It was an open secret that these men had nothing to do with the case, but were bribed to wear the cangue for six weeks." In 1899, Ernest Alabaster, a scholar of Chinese criminal law, wrote that courts "permitted" the real offenders to hire substitutes, and that such things "frequently happen, have for long happened, and—notwithstanding Imperial decrees to the contrary—will, under the system, always happen." Supposedly, the going rate in 1848 for a replacement convict was 17 pounds, which would come to roughly $2,000 in present-day dollars."
Slate has an article about some Chinese rich and powerful who, in the unlikely event that they wind up being prosecuted, hire stand-ins to appear in court and if necessary serve the sentence. Even at less elevated levels of society, sober passengers may confess to reckless driving to save their drunk relative from severe penalties.
Apparently the practice has a long history, though how long would take a little skilled research to discover (I can't read Chinese). It was condoned because the culprit had to pay (literally) for his crime and the fact of punishing somebody served as a warning to others. (You thought the weregild was bad?)
I've groused before about "Do you know who I am" and our legal system, but I'm aware that other places are much worse, and this is a reminder that things can get worse still.
Hat tip to Maggie's Farm