More details have emerged in the very curious case of Neil Heywood, a British businessman living in Beijing, who was poisoned by the wife of a Chinese Communist Party leader last year. Suddenly, the saga of a middle-aged man from London, is starting to look less like a friendship gone wrong and more like an international conspiracy. Details that once seemed silly -- like the fact that Heywood drove a Jaguar with "007" license plates -- now seem significant. Because the more we learn about Neil Heywood, the more we realize that he wasn't just a British guy in China with friends in high places. He was, in fact, a British spy in China with friends in high places. A significant difference and one that may have just gotten Heywood killed.
Heywood's saga first made headlines last November, when the 41-year-old died of apparent alcohol poisoning. His body was cremated without a post-mortem examination, an odd decision for whomever made it and later a red flag that things at the scene of the crime were not as simple as they appeared. At first, it seemed to be just another tale of an ex-pat caught up in the wrong circles and hanging out with the wrong woman at the wrong hotel at the wrong hour. He'd moved to China in the 90s, married a Chinese woman and started a consulting firm. Along the way, he befriended Communist Party official Bo Xilai and his wife Gu Kailai. Heywood helped the couple get their children into prestigious British schools and apparently entered into some sort of business arrangement with them.
Things went sour between Heywood and his high-powered Chinese friends sometime in late 2011. On November 13, he was summoned Chongqing, where Bo Xilai served as head of the Communist Party, to meet with the couple. According to one friend, Heywood said that he was "in trouble." He was right. That night, he got drunk, threw up and when he asked for water, Gu Kailai murdered him in his hotel room by pouring potassium cyanide into his mouth. (She was later convicted of the murder.) It's unclear exactly why. The running story has been that Heywood threatened Gu's son, but that explanation makes less and less sense as time goes on.
The case has turned into a political scandal in China, perhaps the biggest in decades. Bo Xilai had serious political ties -- Mao Zedong sort of serious -- and had been on track to take a top ranking position in the new Chinese administration in the upcoming leadership change. Heywood, by contrast, seemed to be a bit of a nobody. Sure, he had a successful business and a silver Jaguar with "007" license plates, but he was no James Bond. Or so the Chinese thought. Only recently have Chinese officials begun to speak out about what they believe might be a larger conspiracy. "I believe it was [a] killing to stop someone from disclosing a secret and that secret is not a sexual relationship, but bigger and more complicated, unspeakable," said Wang Xuemei, one of the most senior forensic experts at China's Supreme People's Procuratorate, last week.
Heywood was actually more like James Bond than most. The businessman had been providing information about the Bo family to MI6, Britain's foreign intelligence service, for over a year when he was murdered last fall, according to a new report by The Wall Street Journal. He was not an agent and was not paid, but he acted as an informant meeting regularly with an MI6 agent to divulge the details of Bo Xilai's private affairs. This was not small task. In China, the private lives of government officials are considered state secrets, and based on what we know about what happened to Heywood, it appears that he paid for his actions gravely.
For now, the full story behind Heywood's life and death in China mostly remains a shrouded mystery, but the details are trickling out. According to his friends, though, the truth might just be what it seems: A man far from home who got in over his head. "I think most of us who knew Neil felt that the truth was probably much more mundane," one friend told The New York Times. "And that whatever happened to him will turn out in the end to be the result of some kind of romantic venture, something that took him into a realm that others hadn't been, that ended up getting out of hand."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.