The biggest, most sensational murder trial of the year will start soon. It involves the death of a man who worked as a facilitator of kickbacks and payoffs. It features official corruption, an international playboy, sex, cyanide, and hot-air balloons. Or so says the press, which has been printing rumors as fast as they can be mongered. And that brings up the final element: we may never know the truth about this case including whether or not Neil Heywood was, in fact, murdered, but the accused is almost certain to be found guilty.
On November 14, Neil Heywood’s body was discovered in a Chongqing resort hotel. He may have been dead for more than twenty-four hours when he was discovered. Or not. The official verdict was death by alcohol poisoning. There was (probably) no autopsy and Heywood’s body was cremated. But in February, 2012, the Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, suddenly showed up at an American consulate, demanding asylum. He said that the mayor of Chongqing, Bo Xilai, wanted to kill him so that he would not reveal that Neil Heywood had been murdered.
A potential diplomatic crisis with the US and the suspicious death of a British subject meant the Chinese government was under international scrutiny. Bo Xilang was stripped of his position as Chinese Communist Party leader in Chongqing and his wife, Gu Kailai, was arrested on suspicion of… something.
Neil Heywood was born in Kensington in 1970. His family was, in English terms, middle class which means they could afford to send their son to exclusive Harrow. But Neil did not manage to get into Oxbridge and graduated instead from the University of Warwick, a top research college. In the 1990s, Neil was in Gailan, China, studying the language, teaching English, and occasionally helping East meet West in business deals. He became acquainted with the mayor of Gailan, Bo Xilai. After a time Heywood became Bo’s “white glove”, the Chinese term for a go-between fixer who keeps a poitician’s hands from getting dirty. One British ex-pat claims that he was offered Heywood’s deal: a “five-star hotel suite, Mercedes and driver, world air travel and ‘small amount of cash for living’ plus two per cent of any investments successfully concluded.”
Bo Xilai was an ambitious rising star in the Chinese Communist meritocracy. After being named political boss of the huge megalopolis of Chongqing in 2007, he launched a campaign against gangs and promoted various schemes to enhance public morality. The Chongqing Model included a revival of Maoist ethics called “red culture”, and was characterized by increased police control on the one hand, and increased public welfare projects, such as subsidized housing, on the other. Bo’s right-hand man was police chief Wang Lijun, who earned the nickname Robo Cop after an anti-gangster drive that resulted in thousands of arrests. There are reports that some of those arrested were tortured.By all accounts, Bo Xilai was very adept at stretching his meager salary, less than a thousand dollars a year. He had a lavish lifestyle and his wife, Gu Kailing was “dripping with jewels”.
Of course, Gu Kailing had her own income. She had a legal firm, Horas [sic] Consultancy, that specialized in facilitating international trade. Gu was quite taken with the image of Horus, the Egyptian god, and often operated under the pseudonym Horus Gai.
Bo and Gu had a child, Bo Guagua, who was enrolled in elementary school in England. At some point in the 1990s, Neil Heywood boosted Bo Guagua’s enrollment at Harrow. Or at least he said that he did. Gu spent a great deal of time in England. Neil would meet her there and they would work on various schemes. Some English papers claim they had an affair, others say they didn’t. But there is some slight evidence she was having it on with the French architect, Patrick Henri Devillers, who Heywood said was one of Bo’s “inner circle”, along with Neil himself, of course.
Either in 1998 or 2000, depending on which newspaper report you believe, Gu Kailan/Horus Kai was at a hotel in Bournemouth and saw a beautiful hot air balloon display. She contacted the balloon’s owner and talked about a contract for many many balloons to be sold in China. Giles Hall, the balloon company owner, was interested. Neil Heywood was at the meeting, Hall thought that Heywood was there to reassure the Brits that all would be cool in China; Patrick Henri Devillers was the actual “middleman”. Hall says about Heywood:
When we met him without Gu he even offered to work for us as our fixer. He said it was important to have someone working on your behalf, but I was intrigued about how someone so young was involved with Gu and her husband. He was only in his late 20s or early 30s at the time.
A sort of deal was worked out. Things happened:
The meetings led to a deal, with the Chinese paying for a balloon that would offer views over Dalian. It was supplied by Lindstrand Balloons, owned by Per Lindstrand, the Swedish aeronautical engineer known for his ballooning record attempts alongside Richard Branson, the Virgin boss.
When the deal was struck, Xu Ming, the head of the Dalian Shide Group and China’s fifth richest man, came to Bournemouth, and took a ride with Mrs Gu and Mr Devillers.
“I remember that Xu Ming was reluctant to come to Britain,” Mr Hall said. “We were told they were to sponsor the balloon, which was designed to look like a giant football, as Xu Ming was chairman of the Dalian Shide football club.”
Money was transferred from China. These transfers were somewhat curious and raised suspicions in a few places but what was the crime? Hall claims that he was asked to supply a winch and accept an extra two hundred thousand pounds for it that would be returned to Gu. He says he refused. Others say the deal fell apart through his incompetence. His company is now bankrupt. One balloon was actually delivered to China. Xu Ming, long-time partner in corruption with Bo Xilai, is currently being rehabilitated. After originally hiding out in Cambodia and vowing to fght extradition,Villiers is now in China and cooperating with authorities.
Over the next few years, Bo Guagua finished at Harrow and went on to Oxford’s Baillol, where he proved to be non-academic material. But Bo’s mediocre Oxford record was enough to win him a spot at the John F. Kennedy School of Government where he took up with a number of folks, his future network of influential, monied friends. Because what is a university for, after all, except creating bonds amongst the ruling class? During these years Bo Guagua was instructed in networking by Lord Powell of Bayswater, a former secretary to Margaret Thatcher. Or so it is said. Bo has tried to downplay his rich kid image. He has denied driving a Ferrari, for instance (though he does not deny owning a Porsche).
Even without hot air balloons, Bo Xilai and Gu Kailai were doing very well in transferring large sums of money out of China into various foreign receptacles. Neil Heywood was a facilitator of these transfers. It is no news to say that Chinese officials are very corrupt or that many are multimillionaires through local graft and foreign payoffs. Some people thought (or say they thought) that Gu Kailin wanted to be a billionaire, that was her goal. Neil Heywood was also doing well, sucking up a percentage of the take. He has been associated with secretive Hakluyt and Company, which is headed by an ex-MI6 member. It is a fact that Heywood had a 007 vanity license plate and he may have hinted that he was involved in Secret Stuff. However David Cameron’s government has made a special point of saying Britain wasn’t spying in China, at least not via Heywood, No!, which immediately rouses attention since England doesn’t proactively deny such things. Usually. But others write this off to David Cameron being an idiot. You be the judge.
Perhaps Neil felt he wasn’t getting enough of a cut. Perhaps Neil was asked to facilitate a particularly large transfer to England and said that he wanted a little more sugar — that’s what some people have concocted as a theory, maybe that was the way it was. The official Chinese story at the moment is that Gu feared for her son after Heywood allegedly threatened him. Friends of Heywood say that makes no sense at all.
Some people say that Gu Kailin was acting strange and paranoid. According to one source (which is as believable as all the rest) in 2007, she called together all of her associates and demanded a loyalty oath. She also demanded (we are told) that all of her underlings divorce their spouses so as to have no one but her… Maybe. Perhaps Gu was off her rocker and delusional. There are lots of stories supporting that line of thought.
Anyway, in November, 2011, Neil Heywood was “summoned” to Chongqing, or so he may have said. He may have told someone that “he was in trouble”. Some reports say that he was booted from Bo Xilai’s (or Gu Kailai’s) inner circle in 2010. If that was the case, why did he answer the “summons”? Heywood went to the Lucky Holiday resort hotel (or some other place — the Chinese authorities blocked the name of the hotel for a while) and there, something happened, and Neil Heywood died. What happened? Well:
1– Neil went to his room, had a drink and died. In China, the official verdict was “alcohol poisoning”, the report that was sent to England said “heart attack”.
2– Neil Heywood went to his room and was joined by a man, or men, who forced him, somehow, to take cyanide. Some reports say that Gu was present, others that she was out of town. Gu’s aide, Zhang Xiaojun, has also been charged with intentional homicide and is possibly the guy who is supposed to have done the alleged poisoning. Or not.
3– Neil Heywood went to his room and was murdered by enemies of Bo Xilai. Or he died (alcohol/heart) and anti-Bo forces blew the case up into a major scandal.
Potentially relevant, potentially factual facts: Neil Heywood was a light drinker, it is said, but a heavy smoker. It may be relevant that his father died at the age of 63 after taking a drink; that might be evidence of some kind of genetic disposition to booze weakness that could take out his son at the age of 41 or, on the other hand, it may be yet another theory spun by those trying to avoid thinking Neil Heywood was murdered. And “heavy smoker”? This is China, for crying out loud, with a billion human chimneys spewing tobacco smoke. Heywood was fitting in. Of course, heavy smokers are prone to heart attacks.
After the body’s discovery in November things quieted down for a month or two. But then there was trouble in Chongqing: Bo Xilai removed Wang Lijun from his post (which, legally, he is not able to do) or so Wang said when he reached the American consulate in February. Wang said that he investigated the Neil Heywood case too hard and Bo slapped him down. Other sources speculate that Wang was fearful that he might be eliminated as a witness by Bo. Whatever his motives, it was Wang Lijun who broke this case open. Twenty-four hours later he agreed to return to Chinese custody and Wang left the counsulate. He has not been heard from since. The official story is that he is receiving “vacation-style medical treatment”. This became an internet meme in China with folks morphing the phrase into “consoling-style rape” and “harmony-style looting”. For a while, Chinese internet banned searches for “Wang Lijun”.
Of course, Bo Xilai and Gai Kailin have also not been heard from since March. Bo Guagua was removed from Harvard by US agents seeking to insure his safety. Nobody is around to talk and the newspapers have been having a field day. The British government has been very loud on the subject and have suggested that China allow Scotland Yard to send a senior officer who could command evidence and view official, internal documents. So far, China has not responded to this bumf.
On July 26, the Chinese government announced that it had formally charged Gu Kailin and her aide, Zhang Xiaojun, in the murder of Neil Heywood. The particulars have not yet been released. Charges may await Bo Xilai, who is currently being investigated for “serious disciplinary matters”, and Wang Lijun. Zhang Xiaojun was once a bodyguard for Bo Yipo, now deceased, the father of Bo Xilai and a Chinese revolutionary hero. Zhang is listed as a supervisor of Bo Guagua’s Beijing technology company.
Bo Guagua may or may not be able to parlay the contacts that he was shaping into a career after the ruin of his parents, poor boy, but perhaps he knows of an offshore account or two and can scrape together something for a new start. Perhaps he will follow in Neil Heywood’s footsteps, facilitating.
There is considerable speculation about the political ramifications of this story. Bo Xilai was once touted as a possible premier; he was certainly campaigning for a position in the politbureau’s inner circle. Even though his future is uncertain, Bo retains enough clout so that people are cautious about condemning him. Of course, he has enemies as well as supporters and it is possible that these may be using the case as a tool to dislodge Bo Xilai. The Chongqing Model is under attack and some who claim to have been harmed by Bo’s crackdown on crime and corruption are seeking legal redress. Gu Kailai may or may not receive the death penalty but it is certain that she will be found guilty. The Chinese government only prosecutes the guilty.
Now I reiterate: there is no way we will ever learn the truth. Did Gu have Neil poisoned? The official prosecution of Gu will say so (or so we are told) and, what the hell, an official autopsy report may even show up! Who knows? The facts are these: a facilitator of corruption was found dead in China — everything else is supposition.
I have made some links above to stories from the Telegraph, the Guardian, the Wall Street Journal, South China Post, New York Times, and other papers. You can go to any of them and find associated links with the Heywood affair. There is a chart at the Daily Mail which explains very little. A China expert explains why the political shakeup is important. Soon — within a week or two, I guess — the trial will be held and China will issue some more information. Or not.