A murder in China attracts world’s attention

Suspicious death of British businessman is creating a diplomatic crisis between China and UK.

neil heywood  (photo credit: Reuters)
neil heywood
(photo credit: Reuters)
The suspicious death of a British businessman in China is attracting global notoriety due to possible links to high-ranking Chinese Communist Party figures.  After months of delay, local police have finally labeled Neil Heywood’s death last November a homicide, and the incident has now become a key diplomatic issue between Britain and China.
China-watchers are increasingly fascinated by what the expanding enquiry will reveal about the upper echelons of Communist officials and how they operate in their country’s wheeling-and-dealing economy.
Senior Party figure Bo Xilai and his wife, Gu Kailai, are both currently under official investigation - Bo for corruption on a grand scale and Gu for her possible role in orchestrating Heywood’s killing.  Bo has disappeared, after being unceremoniously stripped of his membership in the Central Committee of the Communist Party and the Politburo, while Gu has been arrested for murder.
The story has all the ingredients of a cracking John le Carre’ espionage novel!
Heywood, described in press reports as “suave” and “elegant”, was associated with the prestigious super-luxury car company, Aston Martin, while gaining a reputation as a “fixer” with sufficient connections among Chinese officialdom to do things most other businessmen could not readily manage.  The original death certificate gave the cause of death as alcohol position, and his body was soon cremated.
However, in the last month, more details about his death, and possible links to Bo and Gu, have surfaced.  Attention was first drawn to Bo when the former police chief of Chongqing took the surprising step of applying for political asylum at the US consulate.  Experts now believe that Heywood died as a result of drinking a cyanide-laced cocktail at the Nanshan Lijin Holiday Hotel in the city of Chongqing.
Senior British ministers have begun, after a slow start, to push their Chinese counterparts to pursue these allegations aggressively.  Rumors continue to circulate that Heywood, in addition to his business duties, had links to the British intelligence agency, MI6, although British sources have denied any such relationship.
The Chinese Communist Party has closed ranks and focused public attention on the disgraced Bo, one of China’s most flamboyant politicians.  The story has generated a media firestorm within China.  Even the state-owned media are regularly reporting the gory details.  The Chinese state news agency, Xinhua, has published editorials accusing Bo of serious crimes and abuses of office. Even Chinese prime minister Wen Jiabao has spoken publicly about an upcoming wider purge of corrupt Party leaders.
Bo had been a rising star within the Party, rumored to be positioning himself for appointment later this year to the prestigious Politburo Standing Committee.  However, as a result of the Heywood scandal and questions now being raised about Bo and Gu’s personal financial dealings, Bo was purged from his senior positions in the Party, including as Party Secretary and de facto ruler of the city of Chongqing.
Some have gone so far as to ask how Bo and Gu were ability to send their son to be educated at Harrow School and Oxford University, in Britain, as well as Harvard University in the US, on their declared official salaries.  Bo had previously claimed that his son attended those school on scholarship.
The ultimate fates of Bo and Gu have not yet been determined, although it is difficult to envision a second act to Bo’s high-flying political career.
China is currently undergoing an incredibly important generational transfer of power that will have ramifications for years to come.  Concerns about governmental corruption and bribery and the transferring of vast sums abroad have long lingered around doing business in China.
Will the Heywood scandal, in some small way, contribute to China becoming a slightly more open and better governed country?
Given the vast size of the country, the immense power still wielded by the Communist Party and its officials, and the large amount of money flowing into, and out of, China in recent years, this might be too much to ask.
However, British prime minister David Cameron has disregarded protocol and taken the unusual step of requesting that Li Changchun, the Chinese propaganda minister who is visiting Britain this week, meet with him to discuss the Heywood investigation.
Chinese trade is very important to Cameron and to the British economy as a whole.  China’s booming economy has meant that at least some Chinese have developed a taste for high-value luxury goods, including many of the brands that Britain continues to excel at producing and marketing.
If a power struggle opens up within the Chinese Communist Party in the lead up to the upcoming handover of power, then the results could be unpredictable.  Regardless, the British believe that there remain important questions about the death of a British subject that should be answered.
The Chinese have become enthralled by each new twist and turn of this evolving soap opera. Bo and Gu’s proximity to the levers of power within the ruling Communist Party appears to have allowed them to enriched themselves to a level that far exceeds the hopes and aspirations of everyday Chinese citizens.
Hopefully this public spectacle will result in not only Heywood’s killer being brought to justice, but also a bright light being shown on institutional corruption which undermines the economic miracle that has transformed the Chinese economy.
The writer is a commentator who divides his time between the United Kingdom and Southern California. He has appeared on CNN, CNBC, BBC and Sky News, and has been featured in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, The Financial Times and The Economist.