Tom Reed: 'My friend Neil was in perfect health just before he died'


Related Topics

Neil was dead? I couldn't believe what I was hearing. Yes – a heart attack, said the voice on the other end of the phone. But he'd seemed in perfect health when I saw him days previously for a long, chatty dinner in Beijing. Do be careful, I was urged.

My pulse started racing, even though I personally had nothing to fear. Yes, we'd spent about six hours that night talking politics, a highly sensitive topic in China. But, while he was better-informed than most, Neil was no MI6 agent. We hadn't discussed state secrets; as far as I am aware, he didn't know any. And though he may have worked occasionally for Hakluyt, a publicity-shy corporate investigations company of former MI6 officers whose website bears a portcullis similar to that used by Parliament, Neil was far too discreet to share commercial confidences either.

He talked in generalities: "Chinese companies have three sets of accounts," he joked, "the set they show investors, the set they show the taxman, and the real profit and loss account."

Most of Neil's work seemed to involve representing British firms in mainland China, where he was a passionate advocate for UK plc.

But still I worried: Neil had been close to very powerful and dangerous people. One in particular was Bo Xilai, the Communist Party secretary of Chongqing province in the west of China. If he had fallen foul of the authorities, might his wife and children in Beijing not also be in danger? Hurriedly, I sent him a text. Are you OK, Neil? That was on 16 November last year. I never heard back. While the precise timing of his death remains a mystery, he had been dead for two days by this point.

Neil travelled to Beijing in the mid-1990s to study Chinese. From there, he moved to the port city of Dalian. His arrival must have seemed like an astonishing stroke of luck for Bo, the city's ambitious mayor: his son got a guide to the obscure rituals of public school life and, in turn, Neil got almost unheard-of access to one of China's top families. Bo Xilai was promoted to commerce minister in 2004 and party secretary of Chongqing, a fast-growing metropolis on the Yangtze river, in 2007.

But Neil fell out with Bo some time in 2010. Someone within Bo's "inner circle" had been briefing against him, he told me. At one point, he had considered leaving. Those fears appeared to have evaporated by the time I saw him. He seemed perfectly happy. He loved living in China. Everything was going well, and he hadn't had any contact with the Bo family for a year.

Rumours began to circulate that Bo himself was corrupt. He sacked his deputy, security chief Wang Lijun, who sought asylum in the US consulate. There, he appears to have spun US officials a tale that implicated his high-flying boss in the Englishman's mysterious death. It appears Neil fell foul of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai. Such a crime could topple a politician of Bo's stature. And the Chongqing party chief was not about to risk his promotion over this. He sent armed men after Wang: they ringed the consulate.

The relatively junior US personnel inside must have been terrified. They were under siege by Bo's paramilitary police, and had a defector in possession of who-knows-what secrets about one of China's future leaders. The US embassy in Beijing called the foreign ministry: what the hell was going on? Why were armed police ringing their consulate? The timing could not have been more sensitive for Bo's patron, Xi Jinping, who was about to make his first visit to Washington as China's future president.

Beijing swiftly dispatched the deputy head of its internal security department to Chengdu, who raised a People's Liberation Army battalion. This, in turn, surrounded Bo's men. Wang was duly taken back to Beijing where he remains in detention.

One source close to senior government claims Bo then visited a military base set up by his father for Mao, where he posed for pictures with soldiers – sending the message to Beijing that he had the support of the military. Evidently this desperate gambit failed.

Tom Reed is a journalist in China

React Now

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Senior Digital Marketing Consultant

£28000 - £45000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Senior Digital Marketing Cons...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Stores Keeper

£16640 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: An Assistant Stores Keeper is r...

Recruitment Genius: Claims Administrator

£16000 - £18500 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an excellent opportunit...

Recruitment Genius: Software Developer - C# / ASP.NET / SQL

£17000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Developer required to join a bu...

Day In a Page

Read Next

General Election 2015: The SNP and an SMC (Salmond-Murdoch Conspiracy)

Matthew Norman
A voter placing a ballot paper in the box at a polling station  

General Election 2015: Despite all the seeming cynicism, our political system works

Ian Birrell
Fishing for votes with Nigel Farage: The Ukip leader shows how he can work an audience as he casts his line to the disaffected of Grimsby

Fishing is on Nigel Farage's mind

Ukip leader casts a line to the disaffected
Who is bombing whom in the Middle East? It's amazing they don't all hit each other

Who is bombing whom in the Middle East?

Robert Fisk untangles the countries and factions
China's influence on fashion: At the top of the game both creatively and commercially

China's influence on fashion

At the top of the game both creatively and commercially
Lord O’Donnell: Former cabinet secretary on the election and life away from the levers of power

The man known as GOD has a reputation for getting the job done

Lord O'Donnell's three principles of rule
Rainbow shades: It's all bright on the night

Rainbow shades

It's all bright on the night
'It was first time I had ever tasted chocolate. I kept a piece, and when Amsterdam was liberated, I gave it to the first Allied soldier I saw'

Bread from heaven

Dutch survivors thank RAF for World War II drop that saved millions
Britain will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power - Labour

How 'the Axe' helped Labour

UK will be 'run for the wealthy and powerful' if Tories retain power
Rare and exclusive video shows the horrific price paid by activists for challenging the rule of jihadist extremists in Syria

The price to be paid for challenging the rule of extremists

A revolution now 'consuming its own children'
Welcome to the world of Megagames

Welcome to the world of Megagames

300 players take part in Watch the Skies! board game in London
'Nymphomaniac' actress reveals what it was really like to star in one of the most explicit films ever

Charlotte Gainsbourg on 'Nymphomaniac'

Starring in one of the most explicit films ever
Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi: The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers

Robert Fisk in Abu Dhabi

The Emirates' out-of-sight migrant workers helping to build the dream projects of its rulers
Vince Cable interview: Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'

Vince Cable exclusive interview

Charging fees for employment tribunals was 'a very bad move'
Iwan Rheon interview: Game of Thrones star returns to his Welsh roots to record debut album

Iwan Rheon is returning to his Welsh roots

Rheon is best known for his role as the Bastard of Bolton. It's gruelling playing a sadistic torturer, he tells Craig McLean, but it hasn't stopped him recording an album of Welsh psychedelia
Russell Brand's interview with Ed Miliband has got everyone talking about The Trews

Everyone is talking about The Trews

Russell Brand's 'true news' videos attract millions of viewers. But today's 'Milibrand' interview introduced his resolutely amateurish style to a whole new crowd
Morne Hardenberg interview: Cameraman for BBC's upcoming show Shark on filming the ocean's most dangerous predator

It's time for my close-up

Meet the man who films great whites for a living