U.K. Foreign Office Presses for ‘Truth’ Behind Heywood ‘Tragedy’

April 18, 2012 Updated: April 20, 2012

In a written statement to Parliament on April 17, U.K. Foreign Secretary William Hague threw light on the death of British businessman Neil Heywood in a hotel in China in November last year.

Heywood was close to the family of Bo Xilai, a formerly high ranking Chinese Communist Party (CCP) official who was tipped to become part of the Party’s powerful Politburo before being unceremoniously stripped of his posts and placed under investigation for “violating discipline.”

Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, is a suspect in a murder investigation over Heywood’s death, along with family orderly Zhang Xiaojun.

Heywood’s body was found in the hotel on Nov. 15 in Chongqing where Bo was Party Secretary.

The British Consulate-General in Chongqing was notified the next day by fax that Heywood had died from “overconsumption of alcohol.” But Heywood’s family and friends knew him as a teetotaler, or at least a light drinker. His body was cremated without an autopsy; now, suspicions abound that he was poisoned after a falling-out with Bo’s wife.

In his statement, Hague said that Foreign and Commonwealth Office Minister Jeremy Browne was in Chongqing on Nov. 15 and 16 and met with Bo Xilai on the morning of Nov. 16. 

Hague said it is not routine for Ministers to be told about the death of British nationals or other consular cases as they are so numerous. 

“However, we need to make sure that they are told in relevant cases and we will review our procedures,” he said.

From Jan. 18 the Foreign Office was made aware of rumors within the British expatriate community in China casting doubt on the cause of Heywood’s death.

These suspicions were intensified by statements thought to have been made by Wang Lijun, former Chongqing Vice-Mayor and Chief of Police, when he stayed for 24 hours in the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6.

It had been known that Wang had a rift with Bo and may have been in fear of his life. Not trusting Party officials, he sought sanctuary in the American consulate. 

It is thought that U.K. officials were alerted to the peculiarities associated with Heywood’s death based on what Wang said to U.S. officials. Hague said that once he became aware of the concerns he instructed Foreign Office officials to make “urgent representations to the Chinese authorities and to seek an investigation into Heywood’s death.”

Several more representations were made by U.K. officials, but it was not until April 10 that Chinese authorities informed the U.K. Ambassador in the country that an investigation into Neil Heywood’s death had begun. The statements about an “investigation” into Heywood’s death went hand-in-hand with the political destruction of Bo Xilai and his wife, adding an element of murder mystery to an already scandalous Chinese political drama.

Prime Minister David Cameron, travelling in Indonesia on April 11, acknowledged the investigation and said it was “very important that we get to the bottom of the truth of what happened in this very disturbing case.”

Heywood’s widow is a Chinese national and holds a U.K. visa. She remains in Beijing with two children from her marriage to Heywood. It is presumed that she will remain in China—whether by choice or otherwise—until the investigation into her husband’s death, and the attendant political struggle, reaches its conclusion.