Bo Xilai

An English 'fixer' out of his depth in murky waters

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 15 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 15 April, 2012, 12:00am

With his linen suits, his polished British accent, his easy charm and his penchant for yachts and Jaguar cars, Neil Heywood seemed every inch the Englishman abroad.

A traditionalist and aesthete who, in conversation, would staunchly defend the Queen and Britain's institutions, Heywood, 41, would not have seemed out of place in the pages of Somerset Maugham.

Instead, Heywood was unwittingly cast in a leading role in China's biggest political drama for a generation, when he was apparently poisoned and left to die in a hotel room in Chongqing in November.

In the past week, the lonely death of an Englishman in a country far from his birthplace has sent shockwaves across China's political landscape, triggering the downfall of the Communist Party princeling Bo Xilai and the arrest of Bo's wife, Gu Kailai , for Heywood's murder.

The story of how this unlikely outsider found himself at the heart of one of China's most high-profile and volatile political dynasties is as intriguing and unlikely as his death and hasty cremation in Chongqing five months ago.

Heywood's relationship with Bo Xilai and his family began a decade and a half ago in the mid-1990s, when Bo was the mayor of Dalian in the northeast and a rising party star and Heywood was reportedly scraping a living teaching English in the northeastern city.

Their backgrounds could not have been more different: Bo was the charismatic and driven son of a revolutionary hero whose family was purged during the Cultural Revolution; Heywood was the easy-going scion of a middle-class English family who enjoyed a comfortably crisis-free childhood in suburbia and boarding school.

Educated at Britain's elite Harrow School and then Warwick University, Heywood became a restless adventurer, travelling across the United States in a camper van after graduating and then joining the crew of a yacht crossing the Atlantic, before studying Mandarin in Beijing and arriving, as if by accident, in Dalian.

With typical public school gumption, Heywood wrote directly to Bo Xilai seeking business opportunities and offering to help promote Dalian, doubtless seeking an escape from the grind of English teaching. He received a response and a relationship began that would shape the destiny of both men.

When they met, Bo and his lawyer wife Gu Kailai are said to have been running Dalian as a double act: he took the power while she took the money. Evidence suggests they had already begun to amass a vast, illicit fortune, the extent of which is only now beginning to emerge.

Heywood, for his part, offered a useful foreign contact, combined with an innate sophistication that eluded the nouveau riche Bo and his wife. Heywood passed on his passion for Jaguar cars to Bo, and crucially, played a key role as mentor to the couple's indulged son Bo Guagua , now 24. Under Heywood's direction, Bo Guagua went first to a private elementary school in England and then Harrow School. Heywood was still closely involved with the family when Bo Guagua went on to Oxford, where he narrowly escaped being sent down for his riotous lifestyle and lax approach to his studies.

Heywood's role as the mayor's Mr Fixit allowed him to settle in Dalian, where he married a Chinese woman, Wang Lulu, said to have been introduced to him by Gu. He and Wang had two children, Olivia and George.

Bo Xilai moved to posts in Beijing and then Chongqing as his scramble to reach the top of the Communist Party continued. Heywood relocated his family to Beijing, where he set up a business consultancy for foreign investors and acted as part-time consultant for the luxury car brand Aston Martin, maintaining his strong link to the Bo family throughout.

By now, he lived an extremely comfortable life, having taken up residence in a gated compound in northern Beijing where homes cost upwards of 40,000 yuan a month to rent, and sending his two children to a 200,000 yuan-a-year private school.

Heywood's relative prosperity is widely believed to have come from his continuing connections to the Bo family rather than his somewhat piecemeal work in Beijing. Along with another foreign contact, Heywood is believed to have helped transfer and manage some of the family's growing fortune overseas.

That connection was abruptly severed in 2010 in mysterious circumstances when Bo's wife became increasingly paranoid about corruption allegations levelled at her family, and reportedly demanded that Heywood divorce his wife and swear loyalty to her family. Heywood refused.

In the days immediately before his death, Heywood told friends he had not had any contact with the Bo family since the rift but was suddenly lured to a meeting in Chongqing. It was here, in November, that Heywood was allegedly murdered by Gu and a family employee.

The killing, official reports say, was in revenge for an unspecified business dispute between Heywood and Gu and Bo Guagua. Sensing but perhaps not fully realising the danger, Heywood reportedly told a friend he had lodged documents with a lawyer in Britain detailing the Bo family's overseas investments.

Earlier, he had spoken to friends of returning to Britain because of his rift with the Bo family. Heywood even attempted, unsuccessfully, to apply for British citizenship for his wife in 2010. Yesterday, his wife and children remained under police guard in their Beijing home, amid reports that they want to leave China for Britain.

Since Heywood's mysterious death, there has been speculation that he was a British spy. Acquaintances who met him dismiss that notion, saying Heywood may have played up to the role to add to his mystique, but in a way that a real intelligence officer never would.

'It was an image he liked to put across, that he was involved in all sorts of hush-hush activities,' said one acquaintance. 'But to be honest, he always came across as more Johnny English than James Bond.'

Heywood did occasional work for the private intelligence firm Hakluyt, working on investor reports, but the British Foreign Office has brushed aside suggestions he was a spy.

The truth, it seems, may be plainer and less heroic. The suave but ultimately naive Englishman was an innocent abroad, who blundered into a world of power and money in a modern China more ruthless than his genteel upbringing had equipped him to deal with.


The number of hours after his death before Neil Heywood's body was found in his hotel room, according to British consular officials