Despite our government’s best efforts, we’ll probably never know why Neil Heywood died

Dealing with China is never easy, as everybody from Margaret Thatcher (over Hong Kong) to Barack Obama (over everything from currency issues to who is going to be top dog in the Pacific) has discovered. Now David Cameron and William Hague find themselves embroiled in the biggest political earthquake in the People’s Republic since the protests that led to the killings in Beijing in 1989.

At first, the death of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, in a hotel room in the city of Chongqing in western China last November did not seem to be an event of political importance. Heywood had represented British companies in China, done deals, and worked for a consultancy set up by former MI6 people. He had built up a relationship with the family of Bo Xilai, the ambitious Chinese politician who ran Chongqing, a metropolis of 32 million inhabitants. Bo, 62, was aiming for elevation to the Standing Committee of the Politburo of China’s ruling Communist party at its five-year congress later this year. Dapper and media-savvy, he had used Chongqing as his power base, combining statist economic policies with the promotion of nostalgia for the Maoist past through mass rallies singing ‘red songs’.

The exact nature of Heywood’s relationship with the Bos remains uncertain. But he was on what the state news agency Xinhua calls ‘good terms’ with the politician’s wife, Gu Kailai, and her son, Bo Guagua. Gu Kailai was known as a high-powered lawyer; officially she had given up her work to look after her husband but the Xinhua report indicated that she had not devoted herself to household duties. The agency said she and Heywood were in ‘conflict over economic interests which had been intensified’.

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Heywood, 41, is also said to have facilitated Guagua’s entry into Harrow and Oxford, where he went to Balliol before moving on to Harvard. At Oxford as in Beijing, the son attracted attention due to his taste for Ferraris and high living, and seems to have been in danger of rustication at one point. But that was no obstacle to the father’s rise, even in a country which still proclaims that it is pursuing Marxist socialism.

But then Bo was abruptly sacked from his position as party secretary of Chongqing after his former police chief, with whom he had fallen out, sped by car to the US consulate in the city of Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province which surrounds the metropolis; then on Tuesday, Bo was suspended from the Communist party, and Xinhua announced that his wife was under investigation over Heywood’s death.

Last November the official line from Chongqing was that Heywood had died from excessive consumption of alcohol — though he was known as a moderate drinker. The body was cremated, so there was no autopsy. The British consulate in Chongqing and the Foreign Office in London appear to have accepted it, as did his family.

But the flight of the police chief, Wang Lijun, changed all that, after he was escorted to Beijing by state security ministry officials to keep him out of the hands of Chongqing police who had made their way to Chengdu and surrounded the US consulate.

William Hague says he welcomed the new investigation which has been opened by the Chinese authorities, as he should. The snag for the British government, however, is that it may find itself dragged into a major drama in a country not famed for conducting transparent legal inquiries. The rumour mill had pointed the finger of responsibility for Heywood’s death at Gu Kailai and a family retainer. But this is primarily a political affair — Bo’s opponents, who saw him as a dangerous wild card, used Wang’s defection from his boss as an opportunity to get the better of a man too ambitious and individualistic for their taste.

The story is further complicated for the British by reports that Wang contacted the British consulate in Chongqing to arrange a meeting after Bo had demoted him from his position as police chief — supposedly after his subordinate had confronted him with news that his wife was being investigated. Wang did not make it to that meeting and headed instead to Chengdu and the US consulate (the Americans do not have a diplomatic mission in Chongqing). Did he get an appointment at the consulate but decide he could not afford to wait? Or, knowing that his telephone would be tapped, did he set up the rendezvous to throw Bo’s agents off the scent so that, while they watched the consulate, he was on the highway to Chengdu?

How deeply Britain will be allowed to become involved in the investigation of Heywood’s death and the Bos remains a matter of speculation. However, given the extremely sensitive nature of the case, coming as it does in a year of widespread leadership transition in China, Mr Hague may find access quite limited. Whether the full truth will ever be known is equally uncertain. Four decades ago, another shooting star of Chinese leadership politics, Lin Biao, Mao’s anointed successor, died in the crash of a Comet airliner while fleeing the country with his wife and son after an apparent coup attempt. That affair has never fully come to light.

This article first appeared in the print edition of The Spectator magazine, dated