David Cameron 'likely' to raise Neil Heywood case at Li Changchun meeting


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The Independent Online

Prime Minister David Cameron is "likely" to raise the death of British businessman Neil Heywood when he meets a senior Chinese Communist Party official in Downing Street tomorrow, aides said today.

Mr Cameron's talks with politburo member Li Changchun are due to focus on trade, cultural and education links between Britain and China, said Number 10.

But the pair are also likely to discuss the investigation into Mr Heywood's death in the central Chinese city of Chongqing last November.

Mr Heywood, 41, was a friend of the family of Bo Xilai, a former rising star in Chinese politics who served as local party chief in Chongqing but was suspended from the politburo in April amid allegations of "serious discipline violations".

State media reports in China have suggested that investigations by authorities there indicate that Mr Heywood was a victim of homicide.

Unconfirmed reports on Mandarin-language websites over recent days have suggested that he may have died from cyanide poisoning after allegedly having an affair with Bo's wife, the prominent lawyer Gu Kailai.

At the time of his death, Chinese officials said the British expat died of "excessive alcohol consumption".

But friends questioned this, saying the businessman was not a heavy drinker.

In February, Mr Bo's former police chief Wang Lijun sought refuge in the US consulate in China.

It is thought he made a number of claims against the politician and Mrs Gu, including her alleged role in Mr Heywood's death.

According to Chinese state media reports, Mrs Gu and Zhang Xiaojun, an orderly at Mr Bo's home, have been arrested.

Asked whether Mr Cameron planned to raise the Heywood case with Mr Li, a Downing Street spokeswoman told reporters at a regular media briefing today: "It is likely to come up.

"The purpose of the meeting is to strengthen Britain's relationship with China in a range of areas including trade and people-to-people contacts, including such things as education and culture."

Asked what Mr Cameron will say, the spokeswoman said: "I think he will echo what the Foreign Secretary has said, that we welcome the investigation that is ongoing and we look forward to seeing the outcome of that."

Foreign Office minister Jeremy Browne met Mr Bo in Chongqing on November 17, three days after the discovery of Mr Heywood's body in a hotel in the city, but is understood not to have raised the issue of his death during his visit, when he was photographed with a panda.

Asked whether Mr Cameron was concerned that Mr Browne did not take the opportunity to raise the case at that point, the Number 10 spokeswoman said: "We were informed of the death of Mr Heywood on November 16 by the Chinese authorities.

"We became more concerned following suggestions from the business community, and we asked the Chinese authorities to launch an investigation. We acted as soon as we thought the concerns about the case justified it, and we are now pleased that the Chinese have launched an investigation."

Former Liberal Democrat leader Sir Menzies Campbell said it was "very curious" that Mr Browne had not been informed at the time of Mr Heywood's death.

He said the Government needed to explain why it took officials so long to raise the case with the Chinese authorities.

"There is a British businessman with what were well-known high-level political and commercial connections who dies suddenly in a hotel bedroom and is cremated almost immediately," he told BBC Radio 4's The World At One.

"I would have thought those circumstances would at the very least have triggered an inquiry as to whether or not all of that explanation was credible.

"Our Government has a responsibility towards its citizens, even if like Mr Heywood they have chosen to make their home, along with their family, in China."

While Sir Menzies said it was important that Mr Cameron raised the issue at tomorrow's meeting, he questioned whether the truth would ever come out.

"I doubt very much that the Chinese government is going to set up a public inquiry with a retired high court judge chairing it and have all its proceedings in public," he said

"There are a lot of questions here. I'm afraid to say not all of them may be answered."