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A bad heart killed Neil Heywood. But whose?

Theories about the Briton's death in China are stacking up

Solving the Neil Heywood mystery is beginning to resemble a bizarre parlour game. A variety of people each tell an utterly implausible story and everyone else has to guess which one is true – except, in this case, the suspicion is growing that no one remotely in the know can be relied upon.

This weekend, after several days of new testimony, claims and authorised leaks, there is still no version of his death that makes coherent sense. This is hardly surprising. Nearly all the "facts" come from a normally secretive officialdom which is, itself, far from disinterested. The result is that we have no convincing version of what happened, but a number of intriguing theories. First, however, the facts we know:

The known facts

In November, Neil Heywood, 41, Old Harrovian, married to a Chinese wife, two children, resident of Beijing, is found dead in a hotel room in the city of Chongqing which is ruled by Bo Xilai, flamboyant neo-Maoist and a candidate for China's nine-man governing elite.

Heywood had a business and personal relationship with Bo and his wife, Gu Kailai. Bo's police chief, Wang Lijun, ordered some of his officers to investigate Heywood's death. The evidence pointed to Gu, and when Wang told his boss the news, he slapped him and called him "a dog".

The Hong Kong-based Yazhou Zhoukan weekly, quoting sources familiar with the investigation, said Bo subsequently had Wang Lijun's investigating officers tortured. Three of them died. This prompted Wang – by now demoted by Bo – to fear for his life, flee to the US consulate in Chengdu and tell his story. A day later, he left with Beijing officials, Gu was detained, and her husband stripped of his powers and kept under house arrest.

Crime of Passion Theory

Heywood is said to have had a romantic relationship with Gu, a vivacious lawyer who had reportedly been "distant" from her husband for some years.

The theory says that when he tried to end this – or in revenge for him having already done so – she had him poisoned with potassium cyanide slipped into his drink. Although there are anonymous voices saying that Gu and Heywood had a "close relationship", there is no evidence that it was romantic. And there had been something of a falling-out between Heywood and Gu a year or so ago.

Heywood's associates have said that she behaved erratically and had at one time demanded Heywood show his loyalty to her by divorcing his wife. Some colleagues of Heywood's have now said he spoke disparagingly about her, saying she was "mentally unstable". They cite this as evidence that he was not in a relationship with her, but then Heywood would not be the first man to bad-mouth his lover to friends as a smokescreen for an affair.

Hearsay points to her being demanding and, possibly, jealous. Yet, if for some personal passion, she wanted Heywood dead, would she lure him across China and arrange for the deed to be done in a hotel where she was a regular fixture?

The Blackmail Theory

This – and it seems to be the authorised Chinese version – says that Heywood was involved, or about to be involved, in moving millions of Gu's assets (said to be the result of the couple's alleged corruption) out of the country for her. He demanded a bigger cut; she baulked; he threatened to tell all and so sealed his own death warrant.

Few people doubt that Bo and his wife had made considerable amounts of money from rake-offs from his post as boss of the huge municipality of Chongqing. And an article in the People's Daily last week made pointed reference to high officials using family and friends to move illicit funds abroad.

What is harder to understand is Heywood agreeing to Gu's summons to Chongqing if he was in dispute with the couple, or was threatening to expose them. After all, he first came into contact with them the 1990s, and few foreigners could have such a detailed knowledge of just how powerful Bo and wife were.

Is it likely that someone with even a passing idea of just how ruthless the couple could be would obey a summons for a meeting in a city where Bo controlled everything from the drains to the police? And people who saw him before he left for Chongqing said he seemed in good spirits, which doesn't suggest a man aware that he was headed for a date with destiny.

Finally, there have been reports in the past few days that Heywood left his wife with no great riches. Reuters quoted a family friend claiming that a former business associate even had to pay for the family's plane tickets to attend his funeral in London. There must be at least a possibility that Heywood had overseas accounts that he was using to stash money from the Gu business, but you would think he would have told his wife about it.

Power Politics Theory

Some are agnostic about whether Heywood was murdered, but believe the Chinese government is prepared to run with the theory because it is a perfect opportunity to get rid of the maverick and populist Bo.

People on the street in China are fascinated by the case, and one young Beijing business executive said he thought Bo was being purged because he had links to remaining supporters of the former president Jiang Zemin, sometimes called the Shanghai faction. "This is all about Shanghai vs Beijing, about clearing the situation before [president-in-waiting] Xi Jinping comes to power," said the man. But proving a benefit is not the same as establishing a motive, let alone a causal connection. Steve Yui-Sang Tsang, professor of contemporary Chinese studies and director of the China Policy Institute at the University of Nottingham, said: "The central authorities then saw the opportunity to build up a case against Bo. This is probably more likely than a conspiracy. It's very unlikely that the central government was planning this beforehand."

The Espionage Theory

Heywood was a spy, think some, pointing to his work for a British consultancy founded by former secret service types. The Foreign Office said that Heywood was not "on their payroll". And Heywood drove a silver Jaguar whose number plate included "007", which suggests he was not exactly ideal secret agent material. Short of this being an elaborate double bluff, it is hard to see him being a real spook, or indeed the Chinese bumping him off because of it.

The Cock-up Theory

Some people in Beijing swear that there is "less to this than meets the eye". No one knows for sure if Heywood was murdered, or died of a heart attack, and they never will. There was no post-mortem and his body was cremated. His father died of a heart attack in his early sixties, and Heywood was a heavy smoker, and looked much older than his 41 years.

The theory goes that he died of natural causes, and police chief Wang's people either mistakenly thought it was poisoning, thus setting off the current chain of events, or the Chinese have accused Gu and others of having Heywood killed in order to bring the couple down.

But why would they risk creating an ersatz murder mystery involving Britain and weeks of adverse worldwide publicity when they could remove him from office anyway?