A few weeks back, a high-ranking Chinese politician, Bo Xilai, was expelled from the Chinese Communist Party on charges of corruption. And later, Bo’s wife was accused of having ordered the murder of a British businessman, Neil Heywood.
The corruption scandal decidedly ended Bo’s political career…. And also opened a window into the lives of the leaders of Chinese Communist Party, most of whom are multimillionaire businessmen with business interests spanning across contents and wealth stashed abroad.
However, although the Bo bit of the controversy has been hogging the limelight, the Neil Heywood part of it is just as exciting. Who is this guy Heywood? Despite being from another country, how did he make his way into the heart of Chinese political elite (the Xilai family) and become such a threat to them that they had to get him killed? And why has the British government, which is otherwise pompously vocal in seeking explanations from foreign governments if their nationals meet with unnatural death on foreign soil, has been curiously quite over Heywood’s murder?
The Hindu, on 27th April, ran an oped-page article, sourced from Britain, which answered some of these questions, although speculatively. The article said the British government’s silence on Heywood could be because they knew Heywood was an intelligence freelancer. (Govts react in this way when their spies are arrested or murdered on foreign soil while on mission.) Albiet, when journalists tried to find out whether Heywood was really in employment of the British government, they found he wasn't. They concluded it could be that he was working as a freelancer for a private espionage agency – there are many of them in China run by former British intelligence officers – and the British government knew it.
However, what the article told with greater certainty is that Heywood came from British privilege. He had been to elite schools and colleges, and it’s possible that his British aristocratic background and a cultivated Britishness helped him to charm his way into the heart of Chinese elite, where there are many takers for them.
This background helped Heywood become a bridge between British privilege and Chinese elite. By using his British connections, Heywood provided an easy passage to the children of high-ranking Chinese politicians and businessmen to the heart of British privilege – Harrow, Oxford etc – and the Chinese in turn helped Heywood further his business interests in China. (The Hindu article is not clear about what businesses Heywood exactly did. I think he was just a gold digger who picked up anything his contacts could help him with.)
While working his way through this Chinese stratosphere, Heywood met Bo Xilai’s wife and did business with her. Some even link Heywood and Bo Xilai’s wife romantically. Alas, their relation soured when Bo’s wife refused to pay Heywood money the Xilais owed to him. The British businessman threatened to expose their seedy business interests and was found dead in a Chinese hotel room a few days later.
Initially, Heywood’s death was blamed on his heavy drinking, although there were speculations that he could have been murdered by Bo Xilai’s wife. But soon after, BoXilai’s political fortunes nosedived and the Xilais' foreign business interests and money trails came into light. The Chinese Communist Party , in a desperate rush to perform a clean-up act, launched an investigation into the Heywood murder and it revealed that the British spy-businessman-charmer’s drink had been laced with poison causing him death in the Chinese hotel he was in.
It’s not because of the Xilai family’s fall from grace and this Heywood angle that I think this controversy lends itself to a good book, but because it’s far more important in many ways than it superficially appears.
This has had a social and political impact in China. It went viral on Chinese social networking sites. A western journalist observed that it’s not every day that Chinese people come to know about their leaders’ lifestyle as they live under a shroud of secrecy.
It has also got a global angle. Although the British government’s reaction to Heywood’s murder has to do with Heywood’s dubious activities in China, China’s rising clout in international politics can’t be ruled out as one of the things that deterred the British government from acting tough with China.
And a little on the life of intelligence freelancers working for private spy agencies in China, like Heywood, is something none of us will complain about.