Neil Heywood: Why The Death Of A British Businessman Suddenly Matters In China

Analysis

 @JaceyFortin
on March 27 2012 4:09 PM
Bo
Bo Xilai, once considered a contender for the highest post in the Chinese government, has officially been expelled from the Chinese Communist Party and now expects to face justice, according to state media. Reuters

British national Neil Heywood, 41, was found dead in a Chongqing hotel room last November. Chinese officials said that he had died of alcohol poisoning. He was quickly cremated, and no autopsy was performed.

Heywood is remembered as a reserved, polite and stylish businessman; he'd lived in China for years and spoke fluent Mandarin.  He was married to a woman from the northeastern city of Dalian, and together they were raising two young children. Heywood met the mayor of Dalian during the 1990s, and the Financial Times reports that the two became close friends.

That mayor, Bo Xilai, later went on to become the Communist Party Secretary for the municipality of Chongqing.

As Bo was ascending within the party, Heywood moved to Beijing to work as an independent consultant. His clients included Aston Martin, Hakluty & Co and other companies, but his exact functions and capabilities remain unclear. The Wall Street Journal reports that Heywood frequently acted as a business liaison for the Bo family, but nobody has yet offered an explanation as to what he was doing in Chongqing at the time of his death.

At that time, there was little talk of foul play. But now that Bo is embroiled in a national scandal, Heywood's mysterious death is under new investigation.

Bo was recently fired from his position of power in Chongqing, to the surprise of many. The politician had been ambitious and generally well-liked; it was assumed that he was on track to take a spot on the Politburo Standing Committee, the elite group at the helm of the Chinese Communist Party.

Bo's rise to prominence was unique among Chinese politicians. He was a populist, who frequently condemned China's severe income gap, endearing himself to the citizens of Chongqing with affordable housing initiatives and crackdowns on high-level corruption. And although Politburo politics typically took place behind closed doors, Bo was a charismatic and able public campaigner.

He was also defiantly Maoist, often invoking revolutionary communist rhetoric and promoting red culture. He criticized China's market liberalizations of the past few years, boldly taking issue with the reformist policies of his superiors.

Bo's downfall came shortly after the mysterious defection of Wang Lijun, a Chongqing police chief who had been Bo's protégé and right-hand man. Wang was demoted by Bo in February; he then fled Chongqing to take refuge at the American consulate in Chengdu, spending a day there before he was taken into custody by Chinese officials and shuttled to Beijing.

Rumors swirled after the Wang incident, picking up steam when Bo was unexpectedly sacked a few weeks later. Why did Wang fear for his safety? What did he reveal to the Americans? And what caused the apparent discord between Wang and Bo in the first place?

Now the connection between Wang's defection, Bo's sacking and Heywood's death is being pieced together by a number of sources. It appears that the quiet death of a British businessman may offer some new hints in an increasingly complicated puzzle.

Whispers of Bo's involvement in Heywood's sudden passing have lately been surfacing in China's blogosphere. Based on these rumors, the British Embassy in Beijing has submitted a request. We recently asked the Chinese authorities to investigate the case further after suggestions that there were suspicious circumstances involved in his death, said an embassy spokesman to Reuters.

The Wall Street Journal spoke to people familiar with the matter who said that after Heywood died -- back when Bo still pulled the strings in Chongqing -- Wang suspected that poisoning, not alcohol, was the cause of death. He shared these suspicions with Bo. But Wang's hunch was not well-received, and he was demoted from his position as police chief. Fearing for his safety, he sought refuge at the U.S. Consulate. There, said one source, he also revealed that Heywood had been at odds with Bo's wife concerning some business matters.

It is unclear whether Wang left the consulate voluntarily, as is claimed by U.S. officials. He was taken to Beijing for questioning, and there he remains. It is possible, though still unconfirmed, that Wang gave U.S. diplomats evidence implicating his former boss.

The insinuation that Bo may have been involved in Heywood's death is questionable, but such an accusation would not be without precedent.

An investigation conducted by the Financial Times earlier this month suggested that Bo's popular crusade against high-level corruption was tainted by gross transgressions. One prosecuted billionaire, Li Jun, reports being arrested and tortured, even though wrongdoing on his part was never proven. Another victim of the crackdown, journalist Jiang Weiping, said he was sentenced to years in prison for nothing more than writing critical articles. If these testimonies are true, then Bo is no stranger to violent abuses of power.

Whether or not he was guilty of unjust persecutions, odds are he was already fixed in the crosshairs of the ruling elite due to his anti-reformist ideologies. In any case, Bo fell out of favor weeks after Wang's flight. Now that he is gone, changes are already evident in the metropolis of Chongqing.

Since the sacking, reports Bloomberg, Chongqing will no longer run the television show Daily Red Songs, a Maoist cultural program Bo had championed. Higher-ups also fired another of the city's officials, party committee member Chen Cungen. And a police chief who served as an aide to Wang has been placed under investigation.

Amidst the ongoing drama, China is abuzz with speculation about the future of the Communist Party. With leftist politicians on the defensive after Bo's sudden departure, many wonder about the political direction the country will take after October's power transfer in the Politburo Standing Committee.

The nine-member committee currently includes President Hu Jintao, Prime Minister Wen Jiabao and Vice President Xi Jinping. Xi is likely to become president, and current Vice Premier Li Keqiang could become the new Prime Minister.

Former Standing Committee contender Bo's whereabouts are currently unknown. 

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