Details Emerge About Death of Neil Heywood (Updated)

With the Chinese government releasing scant information about the case against former Chongqing Party secretary Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, who has been implicated in the murder of Briton Neil Heywood, foreign reporters are slowly piecing together the story. Reuters reports that Bo Xilai initially backed a police investigation into the death of Heywood after his police chief, Wang Lijun, confronted him about it:

In a tense meeting on or about January 18, Wang confronted Bo with evidence implicating Gu in the death of Heywood, a former friend of the Bo family, said two sources with knowledge of police and government information on the case.

Bo was so angry he ordered Wang out of the office, but after composing himself he told Wang to return and signaled that he would let the inquiry proceed, the sources added.

Two or three days later, Bo backflipped and shunted aside Wang in an apparent bid to quash the inquiry and protect his wife and his career, the sources said.

Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu on February 6 in an apparent asylum attempt, which exposed the rift between him and Bo and later brought to light official suspicions that Bo’s wife engineered Heywood’s murder.

British officials, who have received criticism for reacting slowly to the suspicious death of Heywood, have raised the case in meetings with Chinese officials this week. In a statement, Foreign Secretary William Hague provided a few more details about the timeline of the case and says he called for an investigation in February. From the Los Angeles Times:

In his statement, Hague said British officials in China first learned of rumors among expatriates that Heywood had died under “suspicious circumstances” on Jan. 18. A few weeks later, the former Chongqing police chief made undescribed allegations about the death.

Hague said he was first informed about the case on Feb. 7.

“I immediately instructed them to make urgent representations to the Chinese authorities and to seek an investigation into Mr Heywood’s death,” the foreign secretary wrote in his statement.

The question of how quickly Britain reacted is one of many circling over the case: The Wall Street Journal reported that British consular officials in China were suspicious of the death as early as November, but the case wasn’t pursued “because other U.K. officials believed that asking the Chinese to investigate would be problematic,” according to several people familiar with the matter.

The Financial Times also has more details about the death of Heywood and local officials who may have conspired with Gu to cover it up:

Xia Zeliang, Communist party secretary of Chongqing’s Nan’an district where the hotel is located, allegedly provided the poison and used security personnel from his district to secure the area the night Mr Heywood died, officials and sources familiar with the investigation said.

Chongqing officials and businesspeople describe Mr Xia as one of the examples of how the Bo family made official resources serve their personal interests.

“Secretary Xia spent a lot of effort on winning the favour of [Mr Bo’s wife] Gu Kailai, and as a result he was promoted much faster than usual,” said one source familiar with the workings of the Chongqing government.

In the Guardian, Tania Branigan answers a series of questions about the alleged murder, what evidence exists, and the relationship between Bo Xilai, Gu Kailai and Neil Heywood.

As Reuters reported earlier, one theory circulating is that Gu Kailai had Heywood killed because he knew too much about her overseas assets and may have demanded a higher cut of the payments than she expected for helping make the transfers. This case has captured the attention of Chinese citizens and the world because of the sheer scale of corruption and privilege exhibited by Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai, and their son Bo Guagua who is studying at Harvard. On his New Yorker blog, Evan Osnos writes that Bo’s case is significant precisely because it confirms long-held suspicions and rumors about the extent of corruption among high officials in China:

How much money did they want to get out of the country? So far, the only figures come from overseas Chinese-language news sites, without sources, which allege that Bo’s wife has told investigators that she transferred overseas $1.2 billion—that’s with a “b.” As ever, online rumors require skepticism, but in this case, they have often proved to be true—so they are worth noting for the moment.

How common is this? Let’s go back to Macau for a window into China’s corruption problem. Take the executive deputy mayor of Shenyang, Ma Xiangdong; he lost four million dollars of public funds in 2002 at casinos in Macau and Las Vegas. His boss, the mayor, was found to have six million dollars worth of gold bars hidden in the walls his houses and a hundred and fifty Rolexes. Or, consider the pair of Party propaganda chiefs—named Zhang and Zhang—who lost more than $12 million in Chongqing public funds at the Lisboa Casino in 2004. Or Zhang Jian, a former Party chief in Jiangsu, who lost $18 million. Or Li Weimin, a Party chief in Guangdong, who lost $11.5 million. Or Liu Xinyong, a local bureaucrat from Chonqqing, who stands out not for scale but for speed: he managed to lose a quarter of a million dollars in bribes in just forty-eight hours in Macau.

For the National Committee on U.S.-China Relations , Li Cheng discusses the significance of Bo’s case for the leadership transition which is slated for the coming fall.

UPDATE: The Telegraph has accounts from officials who served under Bo Xilai about his harsh tactics that led to numerous official suicides, and widespread fear and depression:

Government officials were exhausted by two campaigns in particular. The Black and White campaign stated that they must be available to work all night, as well as all day, while the Five Plus Two campaign put them on duty over the weekend as well as through the week.

Anyone who challenged Mr Bo, said one former official, was “instantly criticised”. He added: “It was a feudal system. Mr Bo used the politics of the Cultural Revolution, of power and fear, to rule”. His iron-fisted police chief, Wang Lijun, was deeply unpopular within the police force, allegedly displaying extreme brutality, a taste for lavish spending and a lightning quick temper.

See also:
- “Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai ‘had affair’ with murdered British businessman Neil Heywood” from the Australian
- “Three Questions From China’s Bo Xilai Fiasco” by Minxin Pei in the Wall Street Journal
- “Frenzied Hours for U.S. on Fate of a China Insider,” from the New York Times, which provides details about Wang Lijun’s visit to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu

Read all of CDT’s coverage of Bo Xilai, Wang Lijun, and Gu Kailai.