Tuesday, March 27, 2012

'Suspicious death' of Briton with links to Bo Xilai

China is being urged to reopen an investigation into the death of a British businessman who had close connections to purged Chinese official Bo Xilai. Neil Heywood died last November at a hotel in Chongqing. Police and authorities investigating the case say he died from “excessive alcohol consumption”, but now suspicions have been heightened following Bo Xilai's dismissal and possible connections with ex-police chief Wang Lijun.

At the time of Heywood's death the family was said to have been satisfied with the ruling and the businessman was cremated, and according to some reports without an autopsy having been performed. “Back at the time, the family was content with how the case was being handled and had no reason to disbelieve the police's findings," a spokesman from the British Embassy said.


But concerns have been raised after the ousting of Chongqing governor Bo Xilai with whom Heywood is said to have been close friends. Pressure from friends and family has forced the British consulate to ask the authorities to reopen the investigation into Heywood’s death, though there has not been an official response from the Chinese authorities thus far.

Some have raised the issue of Heywood’s drinking habits and claimed he was a teetotaler, though at least one person who said they knew the businessman told the BBC he drank occasionally.

A spokesman for the British Embassy refused to answer questions concerning the specifics of the case but said, “There was speculation, which was referred to us, so we passed it onto the Chinese authorities.”

The opaque nature of reporting in China and the reticence of authorities to release any official statements have only fueled rumours and speculation surrounding Bo Xilai and his associates.

Political turmoil

Bo Xilai was removed from his post as communist party boss in the city of Chongqing earlier this month because of his connection with a scandal involving Chongqing's police chief, Wang Lijun. Wang had himself been demoted and then fled to the US consulate in Chengdu. Many believe he went there to seek asylum, though the real reason remains unclear.

Rumours have also circulated that Bo Xilai and communist party official and domestic security chief  Zhou Yongkang had been plotting for a political takeover within the upper ranks of the Communist Party, those these too are unsubstantiated.

Revelations concerning Bo Xilai’s son, Bo Guagua, have also made the headlines with his lavish playboy lifestyle. There have been some media reports claiming that Neil Heywood, who was married with two children, worked as a butler for Bo Guagua. However these reports are understood to be untrue.

Nonetheless, Neil Heywood and Bo Guagua have been good friends for some years and met regularly. He is also believed to have assisted in his overseas education.

Business connections

Why Heywood was in Chongqing in November is not known. He is known to have attended business seminars in Beijing and is pictured on hurun.net along with other executives in connection with the luxury car manufacturer Aston Martin.

Aston Martin has confirmed that he was a non-executive director for Beijing Martin, an Aston Martin dealership, but said he was not directly employed by the British carmaker.

A staff member at the Hualing Sifang company, where he was listed as a non-executive board member, said they added his name after discussing the possibility of helping Chinese firms to list in London, but no deals had materialised.

Heywood moved to the Beijing suburbs, where he and his Dalian wife brought up their two small children. He also had a property in London, and his background appears to be one of Home Counties affluence.

Rumours of a connection between the Wang scandal and Neil Heywood’s death first emerged in mid-February on China’s weibos, Twitter-like microblogs. Reports in papers and on micro-blogs paint a confused picture. The Wall Street Journal points to a fallout between Wang and Bo Xilai after discussing claims that Heywood was poisoned. Wang also claimed that Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, was involved in a business dispute with Heywood, according to the paper’s sources.

In other revelations reported by the Wall Street Journal, Neil Heywood had links with a company established and set up by ex-spies. Heywood is said to have been an advisor for Hakluyt, a corporate intelligence firm founded by ex-MI6 officers. It has all the makings of a spy novel, and one friend even likened Heywood to a character from one of Graham Greene's books [Telegraph].

Media reports

News concerning Bo Xilai and the associated rumours have already been heavily censored with mentions on micro-blogs being quickly deleted [CNN]. The latest revelations were also hard to find in the Chinese media with many articles discussing Neil Heywood having been removed. A search on Baidu, China’s main search engine, for 尼尔・海伍德 [Neil Heywood in Chinese characters] brought up several news articles though many links were dead. Of the few that remained online at the time of publishing, most omitted any reference to Bo Xilai and only of a connection with Wang Lijun. All the articles seemed to be a slimmed-down and plagiarized version of the Wall Street Journal article [biz.cb / 21cn / ccdyifeng cached / Sina cached].

Foreign media, of course, have not held back either in reporting the facts nor publishing the speculation and rumours surrounding the growing scandal. In Hong Kong most papers have avoided playing up the rumours and scandal, though many are less stifled in the way they can report. The Asia Times in particular discusses in some length the rumour mill, which is likely to keep churning, though with little effect for those at the top.

Some effects have already been felt however. When the Epoch Times, a newspaper founded by Falun Gong, picked up on the rumours of a coup in Beijing and splashed a big story it caused a scare in Hong Kong, where the stock market dipped, though only momentarily.

Fraught investigation

Any investigation into the death of Neil Heywood is unlikely to reveal very much. There is no body, there was no autopsy, and any CCTV footage from the hotel in which he died is unlikely to have been kept. Any witness statements may prove to be of little value, especially after four months. However the circumstances and the suspicious, if somewhat circumstantial, links to Bo Xilai and Wang Lijun do raise many questions. Just as the case of Hu Stern [tvnewswatch: Hu's been bribing who?] raised issues over how safe it was to do business in China, this case too may reopen the debate of the risks of doing business in the Middle Kingdom.

The death of a British businessman being linked to the largest political scandal in China in recent times doesn’t bode well for relations between China and the west, and especially Britain which is trying to boost trade with the second largest world economy.  [Pictured: Neil Heywood & Bo Xilai. Playing cards courtesy of MostWantedChinesePlayingCards]

[Links: BBC / Sky / Sky - video / ITV / TelegraphGuardian / FT / WSJ / Globe & Mail]

tvnewswatch, London, UK 

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