Gone but not forgotten: The afterlife of Neil Heywood

Behind the death in China of a British businessman are murky tales of corruption and infighting that reach the top of the Communist party

In essence, there are just two questions: why did a 41-year-old English businessman in apparent good health have to die? And how was he killed? But as explanations for how and why Neil Heywood died in a hotel in central China last November continued to stream out this week, the massive freight of back stories they brought in train rapidly transformed what began as a family tragedy and a small consular headache into a saga stretching from Bournemouth's beachfront to the heights of the Chinese Communist Party. A story with all the kinks of a classic Le Carre, it bore potentially fateful implications for China’s future political direction.

The story has been developing rapidly in the past week, but for every new line to arrive, doubts are raised about the veracity of ones we learned about earlier. It’s like a gimcrack Hong Kong skyscraper from the pre-1997 days, racing skywards day by day but as it does so the lower storeys are already beginning to crumple. Will it stand up?

Neil Heywood was an alumnus of Harrow School who had for many years lived in Beijing and made a living as a businessman, doing no-one seems to know precisely what. For some of those years what he did involved one of the most powerful couples in the country, Bo Xilai, head of the Communist Party in Chongqing, and his wife Gu Kailai: both aristocrats of the Communist Party. Bo Xilai, as the charismatic and fiercely ambitious son of a hero of the revolution, had his sights set on the very top. Gu Kailai, a successful lawyer and daughter of a Red Army general, had made a fortune from property deals in Hong Kong. And for a number of years, as a bai shoutao or ‘white glove’, a helpful and well-connected foreigner, Mr Heywood had been part of their circle.

But more recently there had been a falling out, and when he told friends last November that his presence was required by the Bos, that he had been summoned to a meeting and was in trouble, he was clearly a worried man.

His friends never saw him again: on the evening of 14th November, in a villa at the three-star Narshan Lijing Holiday Hotel in the countryside near Lijing?, he died. The Chinese authorities told his family he had had a heart attack, and British consular authorities that he had died from alcoholic poisoning. Neither claim, it appears is true – though no-one can be sure, because his body was cremated the next day, without benefit of an autopsy.

The sad and enigmatic little tale might have ended there. But on 6th February Wang Lijun, the deputy chief of police in the megalopolis which Bo Xilai ruled like a feudal lord, shook off his security tail and drove at speed to the American consulate in Chengdu and told the Americans that neither drink nor cardiac arrest were responsible for Heywood’s death. Rather he had been murdered by order of Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai. This was what Wang’s investigation had uncovered, and now as a result Wang’s own life (Wang said) was hanging by a thread.

As Heywood was so hastily cremated we cannot know if Wang’s charge was true, but the story emerging over the past two weeks looks like this: Heywood had been asked by Gu to help her move a large amount of money abroad, something he had done before. He agreed, but when Gu balked at the commission he demanded, he said he would not do it – while warning her how much he knew of her financial affairs. It was this that induced Gu to have the man with whom she had had a close relationship killed.

How close is close? Only ten days ago or so we were in no doubt that Heywood and Gu were “romantically connected”. That claim has now been exploded by a friend who said of the rumours, “I would be very surprised. [Heywood] wasn’t at all complimentary about [Gu]. He said she was mentally unstable and a force to be reckoned with. It didn’t sound to me like the words of a man who was enamoured.”

One report claimed that their “romantic” attachment went back more than a decade, and had seen them, rather wonderfully, sharing a small flat near the sea front in Bournemouth. But again, truth and rumour appear hopelessly ensnarled. There seems no doubt that between 1998 and 2000 Gu lived in a small flat in Bournemouth – her landlord said she was an immaculate tenant – with her and Bo’s son Guagua; there seems equally no doubt that Heywood knew them there and helped Guagua get a place at his old school, Harrow, after the boy failed the entrance exam. The landlord, however, Richard Starley, a retired businessman, denied flatly that Gu had a lover during that period, and denied all knowledge of Heywood in particular.

The nature of their relationship, therefore, both in 2000 when he helped Guagua become the first Chinese Harrovian in history and in November 2011 when he intimated to a friend that Gu was an “unforgiving empress”, must remain moot. But he died, and Gu is alleged to have killed him, allegedly with the help of Zhang Xiaojun, an old family retainer, now in custody like her. In the most graphic report of what happened at the Narshan Lijing Hotel, retailed by a Communist Party official, poison was slipped into Heywood’s drink, but when he tasted it he spat it out. At that point, the official said, Gu and Zhang “forcibly held Heywood down and poured the poison into his mouth.”

The Bo saga is one of the most tantalising stories of recent times, because there is no single element, apart from Heywood’s death and Bo’s disgrace, that we can depend on. The context, however, is clear. This coming October, Bo Xilai had long been expected to become one of the nine new members of the Communist Party’s all-powerful Standing Committee. But what he wanted to do with power was to repeat on a national scale what he had done so impressively but expensively in Chongqing since 2007, pouring money into public works and enforcing a kitschy, sinister return to Maoism, reviving Little Red Book slogans and Cultural Revolution-era songs.

As such he presented the threat of counter-revolution to the forces that have dominated China since 1981. Premier Wen Jiabao, Bo’s long-standing antagonist, made this clear last month when he referred to “such historical tragedies as the Cultural Revolution” – a startlingly rare negative reference to those nightmarish years, over which the Communist Party normally prefers to draw the darkest of veils. His words, wrote John Garnaut in the New York Review of Books, “blew open the facade of party unity that had held since the massacres of Tiananmen Square.”

Thanks to Wen Jiabao’s frankness, at least one aspect of this murky saga is clear: a power struggle has been under way at the pinnacle of the Communist Party, one that Bo Xilai has decisively lost. But whether Ms Gu was really responsible for Heywood's death, or whether his death by other causes merely provided the pretext for a purge too brutal for 2012, we may never know.

Chinese whispers: The key players

Bo Xilai

Son of revered Communist revolutionary Bo Yibo, Mr Bo was tipped to reach the top of China's power circles before the scandal broke. He was removed as Chongqing party chief, suspended from the politburo and Central Committee, and is under investigation.

Gu Kailai

Mr Bo characterised his wife as a placid homemaker, but the lawyer appears to be ambitious and business-savvy. Like Mr Bo, she is a Communist blueblood, whose father was General Gu Jingsheng. She is under investigation for "suspicion of homicide" over Mr Heywood's death.

Wen Jiabao

Mr Bo's position in Chongqing was called into question when the Chinese premier said that the city's red revival campaigns smacked of the Cultural Revolution. Speaking at the National People's Congress, many believed his remarks did not bode well for Mr Bo.

Wang Lijun

The scandal began when the former police chief of Chongqing and ally of Mr Bo fled to the US consulate in Chengdu, apparently seeking asylum, after confronting Mr Bo with evidence allegedly implicating Ms Gu in the death of Neil Heywood. He was handed over to Beijing's rulers.

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