Mon, Apr 23, 2012 - Page 9 News List

The mystery death gripping China

The death of a British businessman in China was just the start of an unravelling mystery, involving a terrified police chief, a top Chinese Communist Party official and his wife, who is now in detention

By Jonathan Watts and Tania Branigan  /  The Guardian, BEIJING

Illustration: Yusha

It has been a week like no other in China. There have been allegations of poisoning, corruption, extortion and political intrigue spanning three continents. Every day new shockwaves have rippled out from the death of British businessman, Neil Heywood, who is now at the epicenter of Beijing’s biggest political earthquake since the Tiananmen protests of 1989.

In Britain, members of parliament are demanding to know if Heywood was a UK government spy. British Prime Minister David Cameron has held urgent meetings in Downing Street with China’s propaganda chief, and UK Foreign Secretary William Hague has called for an internal investigation into the handling of the case by consular officials.

Washington is also being dragged into the morass, with details emerging this week of the terrified chief investigator Wang Lijun’s (王立軍) bid for refuge at the US consulate in Chengdu in February — and the stand-off that followed as the building was surrounded by Chinese security personnel demanding he be turned over. Throw in additional — apparently untrue — rumors of military coups in Beijing, lovenests in Bournemouth, southern England, and claims of murder and torture in Chongqing, and the story — shaped largely by leaks from the Chinese authorities — could come from a John Le Carre thriller.

The victim is a Jaguar-driving British businessman with murky links to a corporate intelligence agency. The alleged villain is a Chinese lawyer, Gu Kailai (谷開來), described by some as an unforgiving “empress.” Her husband, Bo Xilai (薄熙來), was one of the most powerful men in China, who was betrayed by his closest ally, first to a foreign power and then to his rivals in Beijing.

Key facts remain elusive. Evidence of a crime even more so. However, enough details have emerged over the past few weeks to draw a timeline of the relationship between an ambitious British businessman and a powerful Chinese family that has resulted in the death of one and the downfall of the other.

It began more than 15 years ago in Dalian, a large port city on China’s northwest coast that was about to undergo a remarkable transformation. Today, Dalian markets itself as a green high-tech hub and international conference center. Then, it was trying to shake off a reputation for depressed rust-belt industries and state-owned enterprises that were targeted for closure.

This was fertile ground for chancers, and in particular, for two men trying to make their mark — albeit at very different levels. Heywood was in his early 20s and had graduated from university with a degree in politics and international studies. Having odd-jobbed his way across the US and sailed the Atlantic, the graduate of Harrow School earned a living in China by teaching English, but took every opportunity to cultivate local officials who might further his goals to break into business.

He wrote a self-introduction to Bo, who had taken over as mayor of Dalian in 1993. Although 10 years Heywood’s senior, Bo was also working his way up the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) hierarchy, and trying to ensure his family would prosper and avoid the hardship of his youth. During the Cultural Revolution, Bo was a Maoist Red Guard, but was later imprisoned for five years and his father was tortured when the family fell out of favor.

His second wife, Gu Kailai, was the daughter of a general. Her father had also been imprisoned during the political tumult of the 1960s. She — like Bo — overcame this bitter period, went on to attend a prestigious university and became an accomplished lawyer. She was said to be the first Chinese attorney to win a legal case in the US, but this failed to silence critics who accused her of cashing in on her husband’s political connections.

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