Neil Heywood & China’s Bo Xilai Scandal: Drinker, Sailor, Fixer, Spy?

The death of an Englishman makes Bo Xilai’s sacking seem even more like a Hollywood thriller.

Ng Han Guan / AP Photo

Feverish conspiracy theories rampaged through China’s expat community this month when the U.K. government asked Beijing authorities to investigate the death of a Briton named Neil Heywood, who reportedly knew the Harrow-educated son and lawyer wife of former Chongqing party secretary Bo Xilai.

The request came nearly five months after the discovery of the lifeless 41-year-old Englishman in a Chongqing hotel room; local authorities blamed the death of “excessive alcohol consumption” and swiftly cremated Heywood’s remains without an autopsy. Although his Chinese wife didn’t ask for an inquiry, members of the British community said Heywood was not a heavy drinker and pressed their embassy to ask for a probe.

The investigation request has fanned the already-virulent speculation surrounding Bo’s recent ouster by top Communist Party officials. Before the Heywood twist, Bo’s fall was beginning to look like a matter of yet another power-hungry and reportedly corrupt cadre who flew too close to the sun. Now, his tale involves a murder mystery as well. Or does it? Before getting transfixed by the rumor-mongering over Heywood’s demise, let us review the (sparse) facts of the case:

In November, Heywood died while on a visit to Chongqing. In February, Bo’s high-profile police chief Wang Lijun unsuccessfully tried to seek political asylum in an American consulate; he was whisked away by Chinese officers instead and is now under “investigation.” In mid-March, Bo got sacked. Shortly afterward, British officials say they asked Beijing to investigate Heywood’s demise due to “suggestions of suspicious circumstances involved in his death.” Throughout it all, no one has disputed that Heywood, also a Harrow alum, knew Bo’s flamboyant 24-year-old son Bo Guagua.

What exactly was Heywood’s relationship to the Bo family? The Wall Street Journal, which first broke the Bo-Heywood connection, cited anonymous sources who said mafia-buster Wang claimed to have fallen out with Bo after expressing his belief that Heywood had been poisoned, and that Heywood allegedly had a business dispute with Bo’s wife, the lawyer Gu Kailai. The article said friends had told the British Embassy that Heywood had been a teetotaler, casting doubt on the official cause of death. (Gu was unavailable to give her side of the story.)

Did Heywood act as a fixer—or, as some Chinese Netizens put it, a “nanny”—for the Bo clan? Married to a well-connected Chinese woman from Dalian, Heywood wore nice suits, had impeccable manners, and spoke Mandarin. He was just the sort of independent business consultant often recruited by mainland firms or individuals because they think it’s prestigious and convenient to have an in-house Westerner—a “token white face,” in the words of one Brit who knew Heywood. A few acquaintances painted a portrait of Heywood as something of a latter-day Western compradore, who could explain British customs, facilitate meetings, and gain “face” for Chinese patrons. (Indeed, Heywood’s name appeared on the website of a Chinese firm called HL Consulting, which listed him as a non-executive director for the company—even though he wasn’t. The firm’s president said Heywood’s name was added to the site “just to make it look and sound better.”)

Acquaintances say Heywood had mentioned playing a role in assisting the younger Bo after the boy began schooling in Britain at age 12. (Bo Guagua went to two private boarding schools, Papplewick and Harrow, before going on to study at Balliol College, Oxford.) “Neil referred to connections with the Bo family, but only very casually,” said a source who knew Heywood when the Englishman lived in the northern Chinese port city of Dalian, where Bo Xilai was mayor from 1993 to 2001. “It was through others that I heard of his involvement in [younger] Bo’s schooling.” (One Harrow alum in China said Heywood probably wasn’t crucial to Guagua’s entering Harrow, however, “since the exam for foreign students isn’t very tough.”)

By many accounts, Guagua was a decent student at Harrow. But after he got to Oxford, the young princeling reportedly went off the rails. Notorious as a big spender and party animal, he was photographed in racy situations, including one instance where he and four pals apparently lined up to urinate against a fence. Other photos circulating on the Internet show Guagua looking disheveled, shirt unbuttoned, flanked by two young women; singing on a stage with Hong Kong movie celebrity Jackie Chan, whom Guagua invited to deliver a lecture at Oxford in 2008; and with Chen Xiaodan, whose father is one of China’s top bankers, on vacation in Tibet, where they had a three-vehicle police escort. Such high-profile hijinks by China’s privileged elite evoke a cocktail of envy, jealousy, and hatred—literally, “xianmu jidu hen”—among average Chinese and also raise eyebrows in the Politburo, of which Guagua’s dad is a member.

Such extracurricular activities apparently took their toll on Guagua’s schooling as well. An Oxford student magazine article said the Chinese princeling had a “strained relationship with books.” Guagua was “rusticated”—meaning suspended—at Oxford for failing to perform academically. That was an embarrassment to Bo Xilai, or at least this was the message conveyed to Oxford by Chinese envoys and even Western business VIPs enlisted to help lobby in support of the son, sources said.

Heywood and Guagua knew each other well enough to meet up both in the U.K. and China. At one such rendezvous last summer, they chatted about going boating together, according to a report by the Financial Times. Heywood was “a happy-go-lucky family man who enjoyed simple things, such as sailing,” one British friend who’d met him several times in Dalian told The Daily Beast. Heywood had been loaned the use of a modest sailboat—probably a 40-footer, says another acquaintance who’d seen the vessel—that was moored at the Dalian Yacht Club.

Heywood and Guagua apparently shared an affinity for sexy sports cars too. In one story, Guagua once arrived at the U.S. ambassador’s residence wearing a tuxedo and driving a Ferrari to take Jon Huntsman Jr.’s daughter on a dinner date. The tale circulated so widely that, in his last press conference before being sacked, Bo took pains to deny Guagua had ever driven a Ferrari: “Sheer rubbish!” said Bo senior, who also maintained that Guagua’s British schooling was paid entirely through scholarships. For his part, in more recent years Heywood was a consultant for the Beijing dealership of Aston Martin, the wheels made famous in James Bond flicks.

Heywood seemed to have juggled many part-time gigs. He worked as a sometime consultant for Hakluyt & Co., a strategic intelligence firm founded by retired officers of the British intelligence service MI6. It offers business advice and due-diligence services such as credit checks, often conducted by a freelance investigator using a cover. “I don’t believe he was connected with MI anything,” said one British friend who met Heywood first in 2000. “He might have talked about this deal or that connection. But as an Etonian I simply assumed that Neil, being a Harrovian, might be prone to embellishment here and there.”

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Even if Heywood had no connection to espionage, just a whiff of rubbing shoulders with ex-spooks would make knowing Heywood a huge liability to an ambitious Politburo member with lots of enemies.

Another acquaintance expressed sadness over Heywood’s lonely death in Chongqing. (His wife was not there when he died.) “He was one of many foreigners who were doing freelance business in China, amongst their own networks. Perhaps it was just the pressure of trying to run a small business, and getting too deeply into something that he did not understand, that created the stress which seems to have impacted so badly on his health and caused his demise.”

While Heywood’s death continues to be a mystery, Guagua’s present circumstances are well-known: despite his profligate time at Oxford, the younger Bo managed to get into yet another prestigious—and costly—Western institution, the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard. But he’s been missing some classes recently, Harvard sources say—even though he’s staying away from Ferraris