Neil Heywood: Death, corruption & intrigue in China

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 epicentre of Beijing's biggest political earthquake since the Tiananmen protests of 1989. In Britain, MPs are demanding to know if Heywood was a UK government spy. David Cameron has held urgent meetings in Downing Street with China's propaganda chief, and 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 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 – rumours of military coups in Beijing, lovenests in Bournemouth and claims of murder and torture in Chongqing, and the story – shaped largely by leaks from the Chinese authorities – could come from a Le Carré 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, described by some as an unforgiving "empress". Her husband, Bo Xilai, 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. But 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....

The story might have then faded into obscurity were it not for a stunning appearance three weeks later at the US consulate in Chengdu of Chongqing's chief of police, carrying a bag full of documents about the case and asking for protection from Bo. Wang Lijun said his life was at risk because he had discovered evidence implicating Gu Kailai in Heywood's death, the New York Times reported this week. US officials pre-empted efforts to claim asylum but reportedly kept him safe from the security forces loyal to Bo who had surrounded the consulate until a senior Chinese official from Beijing came to take him out of his former master's stronghold.

The murder allegations became impossible to ignore. On 7 February, the UK government called for an investigation. Two months later, on 10 April, the Chinese government announced the detention of Gu Kailai and Zhang Xiaojun for murder. Bo was removed from all party posts and investigated for a "serious breach of party discipline". Since then, no evidence has come to light to prove the allegations, but a drip-feed of leaks from the authorities has strengthened public perceptions of guilt. Unnamed sources said to be close to the investigation suggest Heywood was poisoned with cyanide after quarrelling with Gu over his commission for transferring funds overseas. Whether that is the truth may never be known...The scandal could hardly be more sensitive, coming ahead of a once-in-a-generation shift of power in China later this year..

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