On November 4 last year, Neil Heywood jumped into his new silver Jaguar and left his home in a £4,000-a-month gated community in the north of Beijing to head to a meeting in the city centre.
The 41-year-old Old Harrovian had prepared as he always did for his meetings. He was wearing a cream linen suit, which spoke to his credentials as an Englishman abroad, an Aston Martin tiepin on the right lapel and a signet ring on his left little finger. In China, where he had lived for 15 years, this particular affectation spoke loudly of a gentleman, or hinted at blue-blooded credentials, opening even firmly closed doors.
That day, however, he was seeing a fellow Briton, an influential member of the House of Lords who was a regular visitor. They would meet at the eye-wateringly expensive China World hotel, where a cup of tea costs £15. The deal was that Heywood would foot the bill, so long as the peer gave him 30 good minutes.
Heywood had several new money-making projects he wanted to talk through: matching hard-up British companies to cut-price Chinese manufacturers. A few carefully managed relationships, using tip-offs provided by the contact, could earn him a lucrative finder’s fee — up to 15% of contracts worth millions of pounds.
However, the peer was annoyed by how Heywood would crudely fish for influence and contacts every time they met. Heywood was also always late and, in recent years, had failed to convert most of the connections advanced him into hard cash. He had become an irritant.
There was one reason why the visitor persisted with Heywood, as did many others. Heywood ruthlessly marketed his links to one of China’s most important political families, headed by Bo Xilai, a rising star who commentators believed would become China’s vice-president when the Communist party changed its leadership at the end of 2012.
As well as talking business that afternoon, the pair discussed a story that The Wall Street Journal was investigating. It concerned Bo’s son, Guagua, who, it had been rumoured, was indulging in frequent champagne parties, endless beautiful girls and fast cars while living abroad. The story could be very damaging to his father, whose political success was based on rooting out corruption and standing up for the man in the street.
Unsolicited, Heywood had begun to intervene, calling up contacts, seeing if he could get the story kiboshed. “I’m having to kill that [Guagua] story,” he told his guest.
Within 10 days it was Heywood who was dead. His body was found in a hotel room in the megacity of Chongqing, where Bo was party chief. His death has been a mystery ever since. The Chinese authorities initially attributed it to alcohol poisoning, but struggled to explain why his body had been hastily cremated before any forensic tests could take place.
Attention soon turned to Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, amid rumours that she had conducted an affair with Heywood. Three months ago she was convicted of his murder, the prosecution claiming she had laced his drink with cyanide.
Her trial lasted just one day, however, strengthening suspicions that she was convicted as part of a Communist party power struggle rather than as the result of any credible investigation into Heywood’s death. Her husband was subsequently stripped of all his powers and expelled from the party.
The scandal hit the Chinese Communist party during the top-level but secretive infighting before the current change of leadership in Beijing.
Until now, Heywood himself has remained an enigma, with few sources prepared to speak about him. Reports in the wake of his death suggested he was an influential deal-maker who had contacts at the heart of the Chinese regime. His 007 numberplate — even his mobile phone number ended with the same digits — fuelled fanciful stories that he had been an agent of British intelligence.
After an exhaustive investigation for Channel 4’s Dispatches, based on numerous conversations with friends, business colleagues, diplomatic sources and a Chinese contact who knew both Heywood and the Bo family intimately, we can reveal the real Neil Heywood.
Far from being a top-level fixer or spy, he was a failed businessman who found himself caught up in a situation he could not control. He then made a fatal miscalculation that led to his murder.
Heywood was born into a comfortable upbringing. Peter, his father, was a stockbroker and his mother, Ann, worked in telesales. He had a younger sister, Leonie, and the family lived in a double-fronted Victorian villa in Battersea, south London.
From birth, Heywood’s name was down for Harrow, the north London public school his father and grandfather had attended. He took up his place in January 1984, aged 13, sporting bouffant black hair.
As he settled in to school life his housemaster, David Parry, spotted that Heywood was a shirker. “He believed in the idea that Harrow would in due course open the requisite doors in life,” said Parry. “There was something about him which is missing, I don’t know what but there’s something which was indefinable.”
Heywood’s laziness caught up with him when he sat his O-levels. After a “mediocre” show, Parry warned the boy that he was unlikely to get into university. The teacher says now: “If you want to get on in life you’ve actually got to work, and if you don’t work you won’t get the rewards, so I’m never sure about Neil on that aspect. There was always an easy way.”
Heywood scraped through his A-levels, with two Bs and a C, disappointing grades for Harrow but enough to get him into Warwick University where he read politics and international studies.
Although he would depend on his Harrow connections for the rest of his life, he left school without ever turning back.
“I never heard a word from him,” said Parry, who was accustomed to attending former pupils’ weddings and significant birthdays. “Nothing at all, he just went. It’s a bit sad, really.”
At Warwick, Heywood left even fewer traces. Then, after graduating in 1992, he sought his fortune on the other side of the world, winning a small bursary to study Chinese in Beijing. What he did next is unclear but in 1995, after completing his course, he travelled even further away, to China’s northeast and the provincial port city of Dalian, a place that few outside China had heard of.
Dalian was undergoing massive changes. Its influential and well-connected mayor was Bo Xilai, who was intent on transforming it into “the Hong Kong of the north”. He began encouraging western companies to invest in his city, with hundreds of factories opening as the port was modernised.
Dalian’s new middle classes sought to enrol their children at one of the city’s private schools, wanting to learn English. Heywood had no trouble finding himself a job teaching English at Dalian Experimental Primary School in the central Xicheng district.
By the end of the 1990s, he had put down roots. He was dating a local girl, Wang Lulu, with whom he would have two children. He told colleagues he wanted to open his own language school but nothing came of his plans.
When he went to Beijing to register his marriage in 2000, he attracted the attention of the British embassy. Diplomats were always on the lookout for sounding boards in a hard-to-read country. Kerry Brown, first secretary, was intrigued.
“At that time there weren’t a huge number of British business people based outside Beijing,” Brown said. “Neil Heywood seemed a pretty positive character, very British.” However, when Brown visited Heywood in Dalian months later and found him wandering about in jeans and a jumper, he wondered about his business acumen: “He seemed to just be drifting by.”
Was the embassy’s interest in Heywood at the root of suggestions that he was working for MI6? Our investigations have found no evidence that he was a paid agent of British intelligence. The government has strongly denied that he was an agent or that it had paid him. (MI6 would hardly encourage its assets to drive around with a 007 numberplate.)
However, it would not be surprising if, like their diplomatic colleagues, British intelligence officers made use of Heywood to give them information about a remote region of China.
By 2001, Heywood was short of money. Teaching paid badly and was hard work. He decided to branch into the lucrative consultancy business that many of his expat friends practised.
Unlike them, Heywood had learnt Chinese and he had a local wife. Now what he needed was guanxi, or connections. After reading in a newspaper that Bo Xilai’s son had gone to England and was studying at Harrow, Heywood spotted an opening.
Through a resourceful British contact, and using his Harrow connections, he sought an introduction to Guagua and his mother, who was then living in a flat in west London to be close to her son.
Heywood told friends he got the boy into Harrow — a claim that has been reported as fact since his death. It is incorrect. Guagua was already at the school by the time Heywood came on the scene. In fact, he met Guagua and his mother in 2002 at a Chinese restaurant: the Royal China, in Baker Street, London.
The inside story of the scandal comes from a close friend of the key players. This Chinese source, who was a first-hand witness to many of the events in the saga, has provided testimony that challenges almost everything written about it. Many of the source’s assertions have now been backed up by third parties.
“Heywood sought to introduce himself through mutual friends,” the source said. “The interest was that he was a Harrovian who has been living in Dalian, where Guagua was born.”
There was nothing more to it than that. “It was just a friendly introduction,” the source said, “unrelated to any school matters or business.”
Neil Heywood, a 41 year old Harrovian (Reuters) Guagua and his mother had arrived in Britain in December 1999 so he could attend a crash course in English at a language school in Bournemouth.
To get Guagua into Harrow in 2000, the family had approached Fido Vivien-May, a Royal British Legion volunteer who was known by the language school. He confirmed that he had helped Guagua with his application, but that the “boy had got in on merit alone”.
By 2002, with Guagua settled at school, his mother was ready to go home to be with her husband, who was rising up the party ranks. So when Heywood later suggested that he could act as a guardian for Guagua, picking him up from Harrow during half-terms, Gu Kailai readily agreed. She even gave Heywood a second-hand Mercedes to ferry her son about and suggested he could use the family’s flat in Coleherne Court, a mansion block in west London where Diana, Princess of Wales, had lived before marrying Prince Charles.
Heywood and Guagua had Harrow and Dalian in common. But, according to the source, the relationship between them was limited: “Neil would occasionally help with mundane matters related to a student’s life. But he was not in any way employed by the Bo family nor was he ever obliged to run errands for them.”
No money changed hands, but as far as Heywood was concerned, he had, at last, guanxi. In 2002, he stated in his entry to the Harrow Register, which documents old boys’ interests, that he was a “facilitator for English companies in China”.
He had already established a company, Neil Heywood & Associates, from his mother’s address in Streatham, south London. According to company reports, the firm was dormant. Several times, it was gazetted for failing to present accounts. Our Chinese source said Heywood “showed little interest in doing real work”.
Outwardly, Heywood acted as if he had found gold. When Bo was promoted to national commerce minister in 2004, Heywood and his family followed him to Beijing, where Heywood put his children into the exclusive Dulwich College international school. He joined the British Chamber of Commerce and attended British embassy events.
Kerry Brown, no longer first secretary but working for the Chatham House think tank, noticed a dramatic change in Heywood’s behaviour. Decked out in a linen suit, brogues and smart tie, he was more aloof.
“He was perfectly pleasant, perfectly affable,” Brown recalls, “but he would have probably been calculating as he was talking to me, ‘Well, this guy, he’s OK, he’s all right but time is money’. When the Bo name inevitably came up, Heywood claimed to know the family well.”
Brown remained sceptical of Heywood and his new job. “Consultants in China live off connections, and many people claim intimacy or closeness to big leaders which isn’t that real. It’s a bit of a smoke-and-mirror environment.”
Another who met Heywood around this time was Bob Shead, the British trade consul in Shanghai. “Heywood was on the grey side of the business community,” he recalled. “He pitched himself as somebody who could get things done.”
When Shead met Heywood at a British embassy event, he was handing out business cards for Aston Martin Beijing.
“He was basically the western face to put before potential clients who like the idea of somebody from a public school background who spoke in an upper-class tone.”
Heywood also presented Shead with business cards stating he was chief China representative for Lady Henrietta Spencer-Churchill, a relative of Sir Winston Churchill, who was looking to launch her interior decoration business into China. Spencer-Churchill confirmed that she and Heywood had attempted to work together but said it had come to nothing.
In 2007, things started to go badly for Heywood. Bo Xilai’s powerful father, who had been a close associate of Chairman Mao, died, leaving Bo vulnerable to political enemies. Within a few months, he was sent to distant Chongqing, a huge city to the southwest, to become party secretary.
Bo used his exile to stage a political comeback, launching a campaign that targeted corruption and revived Maoist slogans. Though it was popular with ordinary people, it brought him many enemies among local businessmen who accused Bo of seizing their companies to hand over to his cronies.
The campaign, and Bo’s image, also antagonised some among the party leadership in Beijing. They favoured gentle reforms that would usher in market forces, rather than Bo’s populist strongman approach. He was losing friends quickly.
In December 2007, an extraordinary crisis hit the family, according to our source. Gu Kailai, who had appeared at her father-in-law’s funeral looking emaciated, was found to have been poisoned with mercury.
Guagua, studying at Oxford, asked to take a year off to be with her. The source said: “Top doctors visited Gu’s home every day and she barely went out to any official events. She also ceased most of her contacts with her former friends and acquaintances. She didn’t even have a phone.”
Cut off from his main contact in the family, Heywood’s business, such as it was, nosedived. He tried to bluff his way through, telling an acquaintance he had been on the plane with Bo during his inaugural flight to Chongqing.
“There is no way that a remote family friend such as Neil, a foreigner, would have accompanied a Chinese leader,” the source recalled. “Bo Xilai barely knew Neil and they have actually never engaged in a [single] proper conversation.”
Nevertheless, Gu agreed to help Heywood out of his financial struggle, in acknowledgment of the years he had looked after Guagua. In late 2007, she introduced Heywood to a property developer who wanted to build a vast estate of English-style houses outside Chongqing. “It was purely a gesture of friendship,” the source said. “She was never a participant in that project, nor a beneficiary.”
Everything Heywood touched seemed doomed. By 2008, he had been shut out of the development for failing to bring the British investment he had promised. That summer, when the bill arrived for his children’s school fees, a distraught Heywood sent an email to Guagua, asking that Gu “compensate him in cash for the failed project and for his years looking after Guagua”, according to the source. He asked for “tens of millions of pounds”.
The family was staggered. “It was absurd to ask for an extraordinary amount for merely having run the most convenient of errands, and even more extraordinary to ask Gu Kailai for compensation for the exclusion from a project,” the source said.
Sensing a growing crisis, Guagua sought to get his mother and Heywood together at a teahouse near Tiananmen Square during the Beijing Olympics of 2008. Heywood backed down. He apologised to everyone. “Neil suggested that he didn’t really mean all the sum he asked and he was just seeing if they could lend him a hand,” the source says.
In April 2010, Heywood returned to Britain, after his firm had been temporarily struck off the companies register for failing to post its accounts. He was forced to pay for an expensive High Court appeal to get the judgment suspended so he could settle his debts without incurring a credit blacklisting.
His debts mounting, in early 2011 Heywood emailed Guagua, again demanding money. This message was far more aggressive than the first. It was to prove a fatal mistake. Guagua, according to the source, told his mother about the emails in the presence of the Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, who had investigated Gu’s poisoning and become close to her.
A few days after the Heywood conversation, Wang asked to see Guagua to talk about security. The source said Wang was determined to persuade the Bo family that Heywood was a dangerous character.
“When Guagua voiced scepticism that Neil could have been a threat, he [Wang] would reply something like, ‘You don’t know their tactics’ or ‘The people who seem the most innocent can be the most dangerous’.”
Gu filed a police report about Heywood’s behaviour at Wang’s behest. To anyone who had access to that report, there was evidence that he was a foreigner who could do the Bo family harm — or be used to do so. For her it served to contain Heywood. But others would use it against her as the perfect motive for murder, according to the source.
The last person to have a substantial conversation with Heywood was Tom Reed, a British financial journalist who met him for dinner at “an ersatz Italian place up in Shunyi” four days before he died.
Heywood seemed happier than he had been for months, Reed said. He talked about his new work for Hakluyt, the private intelligence consultancy, and plans to move back to Britain. He did not mention the Bo family.
Two days later, on November 11, Heywood was at the launch party of the Sports Car Club in Beijing’s Workers Stadium. Some of the richest young men in China were there. The next morning he received a call to go to Chongqing.
At that point, all certainty ends. The reporting of the case in China has been tempered by leaks and counter-leaks, some pointing to the Bo family’s complicity, others to a plot to frame them by their enemies.
Despite the conviction of Gu and her household aide, Zhang Xiaojun, for his murder, it is still not clear even who called Heywood to Chongqing. The family insider claims, unsurprisingly, that it is unlikely to have been Gu, claiming that “she didn’t even have his number” and that after the poisoning she had become a broken recluse.
What happened after Heywood arrived in room 1605 of the secluded Lucky Holiday hotel is even murkier. Serious inconsistences in the trial have led senior pathologists in China to speak out, saying no credible scientific evidence was presented in the case to convict Gu.
While Gu’s defence team did not deny she had been to see Heywood at the hotel, the court also heard claims that she left him unharmed and that his body was moved after death. A muddy footprint on the windowsill also attested to some kind of foul play, it was alleged. The victim was cremated before a post-mortem examination could be carried out, removing all reliable forensic evidence.
The source believes that Gu was framed for killing Heywood to undermine her husband’s political career just as he was on the brink of becoming vice-president of China.
“I find it impossible to believe Gu Kailai would willingly murder Neil, unless she was not herself for some reason . . . She just doesn’t have a trace of violence in her,” the source concluded. Why would Gu, a lawyer, report him to the police and then kill him?
The truth is unlikely to emerge. Many of the known principals in the case are now in the custody of the Chinese state. Gu is serving a life sentence; Bo is under investigation for his alleged part in the murder; Wang is also in jail after attempting to defect to the United States by seeking sanctuary in its embassy in Chengdu. Guagua, who had been studying at Harvard, is in hiding and out of contact with his parents.
All that is certain is that Neil Heywood, an idle, well-meaning chancer, fell into a trap, partially of his own making, and that his death triggered the biggest scandal to hit China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989.
As the Chinese Communist party holds its 18th National Congress — a once-in-a-decade meeting to rubber-stamp a change of leadership decided behind closed doors — the file on Heywood’s murder has been consigned to the archives. It would take almost unimaginable political reform for it to be taken out again and the explosive truth revealed.