Bo Xilai Scandal and the Mysterious Neil Heywood

The classmate’s eulogy made no mention of why a 41-year-old man in apparently good health had suddenly died. Nor could anyone ask the family.

“It was all very odd,” said one of those at the service, who, like many people connected with Mr. Heywood, asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivities surrounding the case. “There were a lot of questions, and a lot of tears. We’d all been to plenty of funerals, and none of us had ever been through anything quite like it.”

That now seems an understatement. Since Tuesday, when China’s Communist Party said that Gu Kailai, the wife of a suspended Politburo member, was under investigation for the “intentional homicide” of Mr. Heywood, all assumptions about his life in China are in doubt. The official account, still sketchy, says only that Ms. Gu and a household employee are suspected of murdering Mr. Heywood after he and Ms. Gu fell out over business dealings that have yet to be explained.

Mr. Heywood’s ties to Bo Xilai, the ousted Politburo member, and his wife and son — a relationship that set him apart from the scores of other foreigners seeking their fortunes in China — may have cost him his life and set off China’s biggest political scandal in a generation. But precisely why, or how, is no more clear than it was to the mourners who gathered last December.

After the police found Mr. Heywood’s body at a hotel in the southwestern city of Chongqing, officials told the British Consulate that he had died of alcohol poisoning. His family, who had been led to believe that he had died from a heart attack, says he was a teetotaler.

A maverick since his school days in England, Mr. Heywood appears to have met the Bo family in the northeastern city of Dalian, where he moved from Britain in the early 1990s and by some accounts taught English. He told one British journalist, Tom Reed, that he sent out a flurry of introductory letters to Chinese officials seeking a connection to the elite, and that Mr. Bo, then Dalian’s mayor, responded.

Mr. Bo and Ms. Gu, a charismatic and ambitious couple with a pedigree of influence from Mr. Bo’s ties to Mao Zedong, appear to have been looking for the same thing that many wealthy Chinese families are seeking — a path to a Western education for their child. Ms. Gu said in 2009 that she and Mr. Bo had picked the Harrow School for their son, but he initially failed to gain admittance. Mr. Heywood, a Harrow graduate, later told friends that he served as a “mentor” to the young man, Bo Guagua. Some who knew Mr. Heywood said he helped arrange Bo Guagua’s schooling in Britain.

Mr. Reed said that Mr. Heywood seemed genuinely fond of the young man and that the relationship appeared to be personal, not mercenary. But in disclosing that Ms. Gu is now the target of a homicide investigation, the Chinese government noted that both she and her son had some type of business relationship with Mr. Heywood and that a conflict had intensified before his death.

Speculation abounds about the nature of those business ties, with some suggesting that Mr. Heywood acted as a financial intermediary for the Bo family’s interests, including helping provide a way for them to pay for the son’s expensive education in Britain.

Whatever those ties were, Mr. Heywood appears to have become estranged from the family sometime in 2010. Mr. Reed, who dined with Mr. Heywood days before his death, said Mr. Heywood told him he had not seen Bo Xilai for about a year, and had only occasional contact with Bo Guagua, who is now a graduate student at Harvard. He said someone in Bo Xilai’s inner circle had become suspicious of Mr. Heywood’s influence with Mr. Bo, then party secretary of Chongqing, and had driven a wedge between them.

Sharon LaFraniere reported from Beijing, and John F. Burns from London. Andrew Jacobs contributed reporting from New York, Ravi Somaiya from London, and Didi Kirsten Tatlow from Beijing.

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