Death at Center of Chinese Scandal That Tarred Official
  • Tue, 04/10/2012 - 00:00

Published: April 10, 2012

BEIJING — Bo Xilai, a high-ranking Communist Party official, was stripped of his most powerful posts on Tuesday, and authorities said his wife was being held in connection with the suspected murder of a British businessman, the latest revelations in a political scandal that has rocked China’s leadership.

Mr. Bo, who last month lost his post as party chief of the metropolitan region of Chongqing, was suspended from the Politburo, the 25-member body that runs China, and the larger Central Committee, on suspicion of serious disciplinary infractions, the government announced. The move ended the political career of Mr. Bo, who as recently as February was viewed as a serious contender for one of the top nine posts in the leadership.

China also announced that Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, a lawyer, was strongly suspected, along with a member of their household staff, in causing the November death of Neil Heywood, a British businessman who had close ties to the Bo family. A homicide case against the two of them has been turned over to judicial authorities, the government said.

Mr. Heywood was found dead in a hotel room on Nov. 15 in Chongqinq. Officials there issued a death certificate stating the cause of death was alcohol poisoning, although Mr. Heywood rarely drank. His relatives said he died of a heart attack, and that the body was cremated, at their request, without an autopsy.

But a re-examination of the evidence now indicates that Mr. Heywood, a high-spirited 41-year old business consultant who professed to love living in China, was the victim of an “intentional homicide,” China’s official Xinhua news agency said.

The announcement appeared to surprise the British government. An hour later, William Hague, the British foreign minister, told reporters: "It’s a death that needs to be investigated, on its own terms and on its own merits, without political considerations. So I hope they will go about it in that way, and I welcome the fact that there will be an investigation.”

Xinhua said Ms. Gu and her son, Bo Guagua, had had close relations with Mr. Heywood but later had “a conflict over economic interests.” The news agency did not specify how precisely Mr. Heywood died, or what business interests were involved. Zhang Xiaojun, described as an “orderly” working in Mr. Bo’s home, is also suspected of the crime.

China is facing a once-in-a-decade handoff of power to a new generation of leaders this autumn, and the toppling of Mr. Bo has caused a serious disruption at a time when stability is paramount. Mr. Bo, 62. a charismatic and contentious politician who openly aspired to join that new generation, has commanded support among some other descendants of revolutionary figures, certain generals, and those in the Communist Party’s left wing unhappy about the government’s current direction.

“China is a socialist country ruled by law, and the sanctity and authority of law shall not be trampled,” Xinhua said Tuesday, attributing the remarks to unnamed senior officials. “Whoever has broken the law will be handled in accordance with law and will not be tolerated, no matter who is involved.”

The murder investigation stems from information provided to the authorities by one of Mr. Bo’s closest aides, Wang Lijun, who was the top police official in Chongqing until he sought refuge at the American consulate in Chengdu, about 200 miles away, in early February.

Mr. Wang is himself being investigated for treason for his attempt to seek protection from the United States, according to several sources. But he is being credited with having cooperated with authorities and have brought forward evidence regarding Mr. Heywood’s death, according to Chinese sources familiar with the case.

Months earlier, before Mr. Heywood’s death, both Mr. Bo and Mr. Wang already had come under the scrutiny of central disciplinary authorities over corruption and other allegations, they and others with senior party ties said.

During the more than 30 hours he spent at the American consulate, Mr. Wang told American officials that Ms. Gu had plotted to poison Mr. Heywood, and turned over a police file containing highly technical documents, according to people knowledgeable about the case.

Mr. Wang also apparently revealed far more. Beyond evidence relating to Mr. Heywood, diplomats acquired a unprecedented trove of knowledge from Mr. Wang on the contest for power among the Chinese leadership, said another person with knowledge of the affair who refused to be identified because of the sensitivity of the matter. It was unclear whether those details were in documents that Mr. Wang brought with him, or emerged in discussions with the diplomats.

Chinese officials persuaded Mr. Wang to leave the consulate, and he was flown to Beijing, where he has been in custody for the past two months. Mr. Bo has also been under some form of residential confinement since mid-March, and his wife is detained.

No one representing any of the three could be reached for comment. At the British home of Mr. Heywood’s mother, a man answering the door who did not identify himself said she was not available for comment.

According to one person who said he was briefly shown a copy of information for party officials that was circulated on Tuesday, Mr. Bo was faulted for several disciplinary transgressions, including failing to oversee underlings, a reference to Mr. Wang, and mismanaging his family, a reference to the Heywood case. He was also cited for violating organizational principles for obstructing attempts to report the Heywood case and stripping the police powers of Mr. Wang, who has claimed that he was trying to pursue an investigation. "It said that Bo had made decisions arbitrarily, without authorization," said this person, who declined to be named to the sensitivity of the matter.

China’s top leaders are clearly anxious to avert any possible crisis during the leadership transition. Nonetheless, the toppling of Mr. Bo exposed a split between those loyal to President Hu Jintao and supporters of Mr. Bo who are unhappy with the current direction of the government and favor a stronger state role.

The March 15 decision to remove Mr. Bo as Chongqing’s party secretary created an uproar among his supporters.

It came despite resistance from one member of the leadership in charge of the security apparatus, Zhou Yongkang, according to individuals with party ties.

“Even now he carries a lot of clout, and he still has supporters who are powerful and resourceful,” Jin Zhong, publisher of the influential China-watching magazine in Hong Kong called Kaifang, or Open, said of Mr. Bo in an interview from Hong Kong on Tuesday, just before the news was made public. “The decision has to be made hastily because he is a high-risk figure within the party," he said, capable of upsetting the fragile balance of power under Mr. Hu’s heir apparent, Xi Jinping.

Mr. Heywood’s relatives had repeatedly insisted that he died naturally of a heart attack, as did his father at age 63. In an interview last week, Anne Heywood, the 73 year old mother of Mr. Heywood, insisted that her son had not been poisoned, as Mr. Wang had alleged.

"I don’t know where it comes from, this stuff about his being poisoned and so on," she said. "This is not about Neil, this is about Chinese politics, and people’s desire to write about Chinese politics. It is absolutely horrid to be caught up in this side of things."

But after learning of Mr. Wang’s allegations at the American consulate, the British government in February asked Chinese officials to reopen the police inquiry. An official with the foreign office said business people in China who dealt with Mr. Heywood "on a day-to-day basis" had raised questions about the circumstances of his death, prompting the request.

The British restraint on the case suggested that Britain, and perhaps the United States as well, felt reluctant to stir up a case whose ramifications where shaking high-level Chinese politics, given the potential damage to their economic and diplomatic relations.

A maverick who chain-smoked, drove a Jaguar and loved sailing with his two children and Chinese wife, Mr. Heywood had been an opportunistic businessman in China for nearly two decades. Friends described him as a witty, engaging conversationalist, keenly interested in Chinese politics.

He ingratiated himself with Mr. Bo’s family early on in the northeastern industrial city of Dalian, where Mr. Bo served the city’s mayor and in other posts and where Mr. Heywood met his wife, whose Chinese name is Wang Lu. He told one friend, a British journalist named Tom Reed, that he met Mr. Bo after sending out letters of self-introduction to a flock of officials. " Mr. Bo answered him," Mr. Reed said.

Later Mr. Heywood described himself to friends as a “mentor” for the Bo’s son Guagua, and said he had helped arrange his education at a junior prep school and at Harrow, Mr. Heywood’s alma mater, from where Guagua went on to win a degree at Balliol College, Oxford. He is now a student at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government. A man who answered the phone at his apartment on Tuesday declined to speak to a reporter.

Ms. Gu, a lawyer who wrote a book about how she won a case in the United States, is still listed with a Beijing law firm. But an official there said she has not practiced there in 10 years. Mr. Bo, at a press conference in early -March, said she mostly devoted herself to household chores.

Other than his relationship with their son, Mr. Heywood’s ties to the Bos were unclear. Friends said he was very discreet about his connection. "I didn’t get the impression it was anything commercial," said Mr. Reed. "I got the impression it was much more informal."

He said that three nights before Mr. Heywood’s death, they met for dinner at a restaurant in suburban Beijing. Mr. Heywood said he had not seen Mr. Bo for about a year due to a falling out, and that back then "someone in Bo’s inner circle was talking against him because of fears of his influence over Bo."

Mr Heywood acknowledged that at one point, he had been concerned, and even considered leaving China with his family, Mr. Reed said.

But the fears seeem to have evaporated over time, Mr. Reed said. "I got the impression that Bo had moved on, and Neil had moved on," he said. "He couldn’t have seemed less worried. He was extremely happy, high spirited."

He said that Mr. Heywood made no mention of making a trip to Chongqing three days later.

John F. Burns and Ravi Somaiya contributed reporting from London and Michael Wines from Beijing. Edy Lin, Li Bibo and Mia Li contributed research from Beijing.