Dead Englishman at centre of Chinese political scandal

LONDON - The mysterious circumstances of the death of British businessman Neil Heywood are at the centre of China's biggest political crisis in decades.

Heywood, who had reportedly forged close links to Bo Xilai, the charismatic former party leader of the southwest city of Chongqing, was found dead in a hotel room in the city in November last year.

Chinese authorities said the 41-year-old Englishman had high levels of alcohol in his blood and he was quickly cremated.

That puzzled acquaintances who knew him as a moderate drinker, according to The Times newspaper, which has spoken to acquaintances and friends in Britain.

But his family believed it was plausible that he had suffered a heart attack, just as his father fatally did in 2004, and until now have played down notions of foul play.

On Tuesday, the case took a dramatic twist when Bo's wife Gu Kailai was named as a suspect in Heywood's murder and Bo was removed from the Politburo.

Before his fall from grace, Bo had been tipped to become a member of the Communist party's Standing Committee - the summit of political power in China - when seven of its nine members stand down this year.

The developments will intensify the focus on Heywood's links to the couple in a country where access to power - especially for a foreigner - is rare.

There are suggestions that Heywood, a cheerful, rugby-playing man and fluent Mandarin speaker who was educated at the private Harrow School in London, helped Bo's son Bo Guagua find a place at the prestigious school.

Acquaintances of Heywood have been lobbying the Foreign Office to put pressure on the Chinese for a new inquiry, a fact recognised by Foreign Secretary William Hague when he said Tuesday he had pushed for a new probe.

Hague said he had taken a "personal interest" in the case and welcomed the Chinese authorities' decision to re-open the investigation.

The exact nature of Heywood's work in China remains a mystery, although reports say he had been drawn into the murky world of industrial intelligence-gathering before he died.

One member of the British business community in China said Heywood was highly secretive.

"He's someone I hadn't seen on the circuit, which struck me as odd," the unnamed businessman told The Times. "It occurred to me that he might be doing other stuff."

Heywood was educated at Harrow and in 1989 he went to Warwick University in central England to read International Relations. A fascination for Chinese culture led him to move to Beijing to study the language.

In 1994, while he was teaching English in the city of Dalian in northeast China, he met his Chinese wife Wang Lulu, who is believed to have introduced him to Gu when her husband Bo was mayor of the city.

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