The mysterious death of a high-profile China-based English businessman raises questions.
It started as a rumour whispered into journalists' ears, but has since gained enough credence to prompt a high-power parliamentary committee to confront the government over it: was the London businessman whose mysterious death in a Chinese hotel last November sparked a political scandal in China doubling up as a British spy?
It is a question that many believe can no longer be ignored. There is a growing sense that the case of Neil Heywood — whose death (first attributed to “excessive drinking”) is now the subject of a murder investigation, with the disgraced Chinese leader Bo Xilai's wife Gu Kailai being treated as a suspect — might not simply be one of an innocent Briton abroad inadvertently caught up in a web of China's internal political intrigues.
The House of Commons Foreign Affairs Select Committee wants Foreign Secretary William Hague to “make clear what relationship the British consulate-general in Chongqing or the British embassy in Beijing had with Mr. Heywood before his death.”
“For instance, did he supply the British Consulate or Embassy with information, either on a formal or informal basis?” the committee's Tory Chairman Richard Ottaway has asked in a letter to Mr. Hague.
He says he wants to find out exactly “who Mr. Heywood was and what he was doing.”
Tied to British intelligence?
Questions about the shadowy 41-year-old businessman's relationship with the British government, especially its intelligence establishment, have become more insistent since it emerged that, on and off, he had worked for Hakluyt & Co. a private intelligence company founded by two former MI6 spooks. Media reports say that China is teeming with intelligence outfits run by former British spies.
The Foreign Office while repeating the standard line that it did not comment on intelligence issues significantly added that Mr. Heywood was “not an employee of the British government” leaving open the tantalising possibility that he might have worked for them in an informal capacity.
The government's muted reaction to Mr. Heywood's alleged murder has also intrigued commentators. Normally, London is quick to demand “answers” from a foreign government in situations involving a British citizen but in Mr. Heywood's case it has been curiously silent. Its silence has been likened to the “dog that didn't bark.” Was Mr. Heywood covertly engaged in activities that, if revealed, could embarrass the British government?
Who was Mr. Heywood, and, in the words of Mr. Ottaway, “what he was doing” in China that led to his death?
From all accounts, he represented a new breed of buccaneering British public school “boys” who made a killing from China's economic boom and have been compared to the 19th century American “gold-seekers.”
Mr. Heywood belonged to the 1984 class of Harrovians, former students of Harrow School, who went on to make their fortune from China's so-called “gold rush.” But his was the biggest success story and his contemporaries recall him with awe and admiration. Mysterious as his death was, so was his rapid rise in China's business and political circles. He went to China in the early 1990s, picked up Mandarin and settled down there after marrying a local Chinese woman Wang Lulu. It is not clear how, but soon he had a direct line to Bo Xilai, then mayor of the northeastern city of Dalian and a rising political star.
Mr. Heywood's friendship with the Bo family opened doors for him and suddenly he was hobnobbing with China's new “aristocracy.” For all the “expert” commentary that has appeared in the British media on his activities in China, nobody knows what exactly his day job was. He has been variously described as a consultant, a car dealer, an investor and a “free-lance gatherer of intelligence.”
Reportedly, he lived a high life — fast cars, membership of top-notch clubs, the works. He famously drove around downtown Beijing in a Jaguar with a “007” number plate.
“Heywood did things in China that other people couldn't,” one former business associate told a newspaper
There is a sense that, ultimately, he lived by his wits and limitless charm. His friends envied him for his ability to “schmooze” and his “practised Englishness” that endeared him to a certain kind of new wealthy class in China “hungry for the trappings of old copper-bottomed privilege,” as one commentator put it.
Mr. Heywood became the “go-to” man for Britons seeking favours in China and for Chinese looking for privileged access in Britain. Notwithstanding lurid rumours about Mr. Heywood having an affair with Mr. Bo's wife, it would seem that his relationship with the Bo family was based solely on mutual interests. In return for the doors they opened for him in China, he smoothed their way into the heart of British privilege helping their son ease into Harrow and then at Oxford University. He also allegedly helped them funnel vast sums of money to Britain.
It is thought their relationship started to go sour around 2005 and had completely broken down in the months before Mr. Heywood's death in a Chongqing hotel. There are all sorts of theories about why they fell out, but common to all is the financial angle. It is believed to have started with a dispute over money that Mr. Heywood claimed the Bos owed him and when they refused, he allegedly threatened to “expose” them.
Days later he was dead. There is a Hitchcock-ian touch to it: a man who “knew too much” about powerful people ends up as a corpse. Except that, in this case, the corpse is real, and nobody knows why — and how — the man died. The case is widely seen as shining a light on the “dark side” of a new China where, as a British-Chinese academic warned, “anything can happen.” But what does it say about Jaguar-loving British schoolboys like Heywood who think they can schmooze their way through life with just a little help from friends in high places?