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Mystery shrouds British businessman death in China

world Updated: Apr 22, 2012 14:37 IST
Dipankar De Sarkar

A Briton has died in China: this much we know. The rest is pure speculation, fed by the media and a flurry of conspiracy theories. The death is said to have sparked China's biggest political scandal in decades. If a fraction of what is being said is true, it's the stuff of a Le Carre novel.

On Nov 15, Neil Heywood, 41, was found dead in a secluded private villa on a forested mountain overlooking the city of Chongqing. His body was cremated without an autopsy and police said he died of alcohol poisoning. But after friends raised doubts saying he drank occasionally, Britain asked China to reopen the investigation.

This week, the head of British parliament's foreign affairs committee wrote to Foreign Secretary William Hague, saying: "You will be aware of the speculation in the press about Mr Heywood's profession. Did he supply the British Consulate or Embassy with info either on a formal or informal basis?"

So, what did he do? A spokesman for Hakluyt and Co., a business intelligence firm, says, "Neil had a long history of advising western companies on China and we were among those who sought his advice. We are greatly saddened by his death." Hakluyt, it emerges, was set up by former officials of the British spy agency MI6.

Heywood was close to Bo Xilai, ex-Chongqing Communist Party boss once tipped to join the Politburo. Does that mean Heywood was a British spy, working at the heart of China's political establishment, perhaps even grooming Bo? The standard disclaimer from the British government sources is that he wasn't a government employee.

His friendship with Bo's wife Gu Kailai was said to have been even closer. She is now a murder suspect, and Bo has been sacked. The police chief investigating the case too was sacked and sought refuge (unsuccessfully) at the American consulate in Chengdu.