Neil Heywood and the Chinese whispers

The mystery surrounding the death of Neil Heywood has fueled a frenzied rumour mill. Photo: Reuters

Ever since late March, when the British government admitted it had asked the Chinese authorities to investigate the death of Neil Heywood, the case has been riddled with rumours.

The thriving Chinese internet and the 300 million or so microbloggers (like twitter users) have been posting the latest theories.

Let's try to sort fact from fiction.

Facts:

  • Neil Heywood, 41, worked in corporate strategy, he did due diligence work on Chinese firms.
  • He lived in a smart compound in the northern suburbs of Beijing.
  • Hakluyt, a British firm which carries out corporate investigations and was founded by a former MI6 officer, occasionally sought his advice.
  • He had a friendship with Bo Xilai, a rising star in Chinese politics, Bo was thought to be destined for a seat on China's all powerful standing committee of the Politburo. This was a rare relationship for a foreigner to have.
  • Bo Xilai was the party boss of Chongqing, a huge municipality in south west China.
  • Neil Heywood went to Harrow school. Bo Xilai's son also got into Harrow and then Oxford.
  • When Bo was challenged at a press conference and asked how he could afford to send his son to an expensive British private school, despite his relatively low state salary, he said his son had been on a scholarship.
  • Neil Heywood fell out with the Bo family and told a friend someone close to Bo was "briefing against" him.
  • Neil Heywood had some kind of financial dispute with the Bo family, in particular Bo's wife: Gu KaiLai.
  • He was found dead at a hotel in Chongqing on November the 15th. The UK government was informed on November the 16th.
  • According to the British Embassy in Beijing, Neil Heywood's body was cremated without a post mortem being carried out.
  • The official police report said he had died from 'excess alcohol consumption', this was not challenged at the time. His family recently told reporters he had died from a 'heart attack'.
  • Bo's former police chief in the Chongqing tried to seek asylum in the US Consulate in Chengdu on February the 6th. He had first contacted the UK Consulate, but didn't turn up to a meeting.
  • Gu KaiLai and a family employee are in custody under investigation. They could face execution if found guilty.
  • Bo Xilai has been suspended from his Party positions and is being investigated by the internal discipline committee.

Rumours:

  • Neil Heywood was having an affair with Bo Xilai's wife, Gu KaiLai.
  • Cyanide was used to kill the businessman.
  • Opponents of Bo Xilai wanted to stop his rise to power and so created the scandal, hoping the death of a foreigner would get worldwide attention.
  • Neil Heywood was involved in getting money out of the country on behalf of the Bo family.
  • Gu KaiLai asked Neil Heywood to divorce his Chinese wife and swear allegiance to the Bo family.
  • Neil Heywood was a spy involved in grooming an 'asset' in this case a powerful Chinese politician who was tipped for the top. (ITV News understands he wasn't employed by British Intelligence).

I've spoken to three people who worked with or knew Neil Heywood, none want to appear on camera. There's a climate of fear around the case because it involves very powerful people: China's rulers.

So the case is bound to be in the public eye for months, especially as China's leadership is due for its once a decade reshuffle in October. Bo Xilai's scandalous fall from power has led to and revealed a power struggle with factions taking sides within the Chinese Communist Party.

Neil Heywood's tragic death will now, perhaps forever, be linked to the shifting fortunes of those who walk the Chinese corridors of power.

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