x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 29 July 2017

Chinese whispers over Briton's death

China asked to investigate the death of British businessman who had close ties to recently fired Chongqing party boss and his family.

Bo Xilai, Secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, was reportedly fired from his job March 15. (imaginechina)
Bo Xilai, Secretary of the Chongqing Municipal Committee of the Communist Party of China, was reportedly fired from his job March 15. (imaginechina)

BEIJING // As rumour follows rumour, the death in south-west China of a British businessman is an intriguing sideshow to the country's biggest political drama in years.

When Neil Heywood was found dead in a hotel in the city of Chongqing last year, his family was content with the official verdict that no foul play was involved. The authorities declared alcohol was to blame and cremated the body.

Yet, friends said he was not a big drinker, casting doubt on that theory. His mother thinks he died of a heart attack and does not suspect foul play.

Now the British Embassy in Beijing, pressured by the local British community, has asked the Chinese authorities to investigate allegations Mr Heywood may have been murdered.

He was closely linked to Bo Xilai, the recently sacked Chongqing party boss, and his family.

Until his abrupt and highly publicised removal last month, the 62-year-old Mr Bo was a favourite to enter the nine-strong politburo standing committee that wields ultimate power in China.

Suggestions Mr Heywood may have fallen out with Mr Bo's lawyer wife, Gu Kailai, illustrate how spouses, and children too, of China's powerful often become power brokers.

Educated at England's Harrow School, Mr Heywood was a well-dressed 41-year-old with a Chinese wife from an upper class family, two children, and a varied portfolio of consultancies and directorships in his adopted homeland.

One of them was with a company founded by former members of MI6, Britain's spy organisation,

Among those Mr Heywood befriended during his more than a decade in China were Mr Bo, his wife and their son, Bo Guagua, who attended Mr Heywood's Alma mater before going to Oxford.

Reuters reported Mr Wang Lijun, Chongquing's former police chief, suggested to Mr Bo that Mr Heywood may have been poisoned on the orders of Ms Gu, and this led to the police chief's falling out with the Chongqing party boss, after which Mr Wang fled to the US consulate in the city of Chengdu, before being detained by the Chinese authorities.

`Mr Wang is also said to have alleged Ms Gu had a business dispute with Mr Heywood, although Mr Bo Xillai's family have told reporters there were no business links between Mr Bo's wife and the dead Briton.

With little reliable information, even close observers of China's leadership are unsure what to make of the stories of Heywood's death and his links to Mr Bo.

"There are more rumours than true stories so we are all suffering from a deficit of information. The government officials are not providing any useful information to clarify these things," said Bo Zhiyue, author of China's Elite Politics.

Ms Gu is not the first spouse of a senior Chinese leader to cause her husband embarrassment through alleged crime or unethical business practices.

US diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks, in 2007 the Chinese premier, Wen Jiabao, tried to divorce his wife, Zhang Peili, over her activities in the diamond trade.

Mr Wen was said to have been "disgusted" at how Ms Zhang traded on his name to secure high consultancy fees.

Many other family members of China's senior leaders have thrived in business.

"Linkage between top leaders and their family and businesses is quite common in China, but a lot of the time these people are operating behind [the scenes]," said Bo Zhiyue.

This year, Mr Wen's son, Wen Yunsong, had become chairman of the state-owned China Satellite Communications Company.

The children of the two previous premiers also head major companies.

Mr Bo's son, Bo Guagua, 24, has also been in the news, although mainly because of his partying lifestyle at Oxford.

As Mr Bo remains out of public view, the plot around him thickens, with reports this week indicating the Communist Party's Central Commission for Discipline Inspection is intensifying a long-running inquiry into his affairs.

Also, a business associate of the former Chongqing party boss, Xu Ming, 41, the multimillionaire chairman of Dalian Shide Group, may have been attested. He has not been in contact with his company and missed a major economic conference.