Neil Heywood death: how news of an Old Harrovian's murder went straight to Barack Obama
The death in China of Neil Heywood, the British businessman, took on a series of dramatic twists yesterday as it was disclosed that President Barack Obama was taking personal interest in the alleged murder.
Mr Obama was informed of suspicions over Mr Heywood’s death within hours of a Chinese police chief walking into an American consulate and telling officials that the Briton was murdered Photo: Getty
By David Eimer in Dalian, Jason Lewis and Josie Ensor
21 Apr 2012
Mr Obama was briefed immediately on the suspected poisoning of the 41 year-old, which Chinese officials are linking to Mr Heywood’s powerful political allies, when American diplomats were told of the murder allegation.
Gu Kailai, Mr Heywood’s former business partner and the wife of Bo Xilai, a senior politician who had been tipped for the highest political office, is suspected of ordering the Briton’s murder in a case at the centre of a political storm in China. The couple have disappeared from sight as the Communist Party attempts to regain stability.
In a series of developments yesterday:
* A dissident website that has revealed key details in the story was hacked, suggesting that the Chinese authorities want to clamp down on the flow of information.
* One of Mr Bo’s allies at the top of the Chinese political establishment was facing fears that he too may be purged from the party.
* Concern grew over the whereabouts of another European business partner of Mrs Gu, a French architect who has lived in London.
* More claims emerged that Mr Bo and Mrs Gu had siphoned off vast amounts of wealth in corrupt business deals, in which it has been claimed Mr Heywood was enmeshed.
* The couple’s Harrow and Oxford-educated son, Bo Guagua, was claimed to be plotting to move the family’s assets beyond the reach of authorities in case they seized them, while defying demands to return home from the US.
Mr Obama was informed of suspicions over Mr Heywood’s death within hours of a Chinese police chief walking into an American consulate and telling officials that the Briton was murdered.
Security guards surrounded the consulate as diplomats sought advice from their superiors in Washington.
Mr Obama learnt that Mr Heywood was being described as a murder victim before British officials told William Hague, the Foreign Secretary, about the development.
Sources in Washington last night said that for the American president to be so quickly informed of the death of a British citizen was almost unprecedented.
“This was a very high official with extraordinary intelligence,” John Tkacik, who worked for the state department in China for 20 years, said of Wang Lijun, the head of Chongqing police.
“In all of my experience, I can’t recall its equal.”
America is increasingly being drawn into the claims of murder and corruption that have rocked the Chinese establishment.
The hacking of the website Boxun.com, which has been a consistent source of information on the murder investigation, was blamed on the Chinese security services by the US-based dissidents who run it.
A senior Washington intelligence official, who analyses Chinese cyber activities on a daily basis, said: “There is no question that the Boxun denial-of-service attack was ordered by the authorities in Beijing. It has their fingerprints all over it.”
Also based in the US is Bo Guagua, 24, whose lavish lifestyle has been highlighted in official Chinese reports.
Despite his father’s official salary of £600 a month, he was educated at prep school and Harrow. He went to Oxford, from which he was rusticated, and now studies at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard.
Claims surfaced in Taiwan yesterday that Chinese diplomats had told the young Mr Bo to return home immediately, and that he was working on hiding the family’s gains from alleged corruption from the Chinese and American authorities. He is also reported to have hired private security.
Mr Heywood had told a friend he was instrumental in gaining Mr Bo the place at Harrow, and seems to be at the centre of the scandal rocking the Communist party.
When Mr Lijun arrived in an agitated state at the US consulate in Chengdu one night in February, he described a web of corruption and fear presided over by his boss, the Chongqing party chief Mr Bo.
The consulate was surrounded by local police, who wanted the Americans to hand Mr Wang over to Mr Bo’s enforcers. Eventually he was given to Chinese state police, leading to questions in the US over why he was not offered asylum.
Analysts believe Mr Heywood’s alleged killing is only the most public element of a bitter power struggle which has ended Mr Bo’s hopes of joining the nine-strong politburo which runs China.
Mr Bo rose to national prominence as mayor of Dalian before he was mayor of Chongqing. His wife, also scion of a Communist dynasty, was equally powerful and reports in Chinese state media have made claims of extraordinary levels of corruption and crime.
An unnamed man in Dalian, who was managing the couple’s overseas assets, died in suspicious circumstances, while the presumed suicide of a Chongqing investigator is also now being dealt with as murder.
Leaked party memos claim that Mrs Gu was behind these deaths, in addition to that of Mr Heywood.
The day before Mr Bo’s removal from office for “economic crimes”, one of his family’s close allies was arrested. Xu Ming, a Dalian-based billionaire, has not been seen since. There is speculation that Mr Heywood’s wife worked for him.
The scandal is also threatening Zhou Yongkang, the politburo security head and another ally of Mr Bo. Boxun reported he had been forced “to make tearful self confessions” to President Hu Jintao. His fate has yet to be decided.
The whereabouts of another European linked to Mrs Gu are also unknown. Patrick Devillers, an architect, helped her set up a company in Poole, Dorset. He grew up in Rainans, eastern France, where his father Michel said he had not seen him for three years. “We speak on the phone, but he doesn’t give me much news,” Mr Devillers said. “He’s a busy man with lots to do.”
In China, residents at the architect’s last known address, an apartment overlooking the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, claimed not to have seen him for years.
The Angdao law firm, where Mr Devillers was based, and which is believed to have been quietly run by Mrs Gu, would not comment on his whereabouts. Some workers said they thought he had moved back to France in 2008.
Mr Devillers is perhaps right to be wary: Mr Heywood’s wife and two children are coming to terms with him being the apparent victim of a cyanide poisoning plot.
There are even claims he was held down and forced to swallow the poison. Friends in China have found it strange that the Old Harrovian, who cultivated the image of an Englishman abroad by wearing a linen suit and driving a Jaguar with a 007 number plate, could be caught up in an international scandal.
In Dalian, where Mr Heywood settled on moving to China following a degree at Warwick University, Eddie Casey, 61, an Irish expat who ran a bar called the Tin Whistle, said: “He was a happy guy. He was very intelligent, always came in for the pub quiz and his team would win. He wasn’t a party guy. He’d have a couple of beers and then he’d say, ‘I’m going home’. The foreign community in Dalian was very, very small then and so we all knew each other.”
Nothing in Mr Heywood’s lifestyle or his business career pointed to fabulous wealth.
He reportedly left very little in his will and his wife is said to be struggling with the mortgage on their three-storey house in Beijing, as well their children’s £50,000-a-year fees at the Beijing branch of Dulwich College.
A former associate reportedly even had to pay for the family’s plane tickets to attend Mr Heywood’s memorial service in London.
“I knew he was involved with Bo Xilai,” said a friend. “The first time I met him he claimed he’d been instrumental in getting Bo’s son into Harrow, but that didn’t seem very remarkable. Now, when I read the stories saying he was a money launderer, that’s just mind boggling to me.”
A Shanghai-based businessman also said the story did not chime with the man he knew. “You meet people who have zeal in their eyes; Neil didn’t,” he said.
“He seemed easy-going and gave no indication that he was driven or ambitious. I got the impression that he was quite lost: a nice guy but a bit of a drifter really.”
The last time the businessman saw Mr Heywood was a month before his death at a regatta in Beijing. “We all sat on the grass watching the rowing. It was very pleasant and our kids got on well. We were going to arrange for the kids to play together again. But it never happened.”