Murder and politics – they go together quite well. Wars, assassinations, violent purges: these are the woof and warp of politics, which is, after all, nothing but organized coercion or the threat of it. Combine this with international intrigue, and the opportunism that thrives in the heart of all politicians, and you couldn’t come up with a better narrative to outline if not explain the current leadership struggle in China.
Neil Heywood was an adventurer, or so he liked to think: a British businessman with links to a company founded by "ex"-MI-6 operatives, he was close to the family of Bo Xilai, the ambitious and now disgraced former secretary of the Communist Party in Chongqing. Bo was a rising leader of what has been mistakenly referred to as China’s "new left," a popular leader who rid his city of organized crime, attracted much foreign investment, and was angling for a spot on the Politburo’s all-powerful Standing Committee. He also aroused the ire of China’s supposedly "reformist" leadership, and as such he was in their sights when the current scandal broke – a scandal that provoked rumors of a coup, caused the Chinese authorities to crack down on the internet, and brought the British government into the mix on the current leadership’s side.
When Heywood was found dead in his hotel room, after having been summoned to Chongqing, the initial verdict was that he had a heart attack, like his father before him. He had been drinking, said the local police, and his family raised no questions about his death, dismissing rumors that he had been murdered as preposterous. All that changed, however, when Bo began directly criticizing the Chinese leadership: see my previous piece on the background story here.
Bo was summarily dismissed from his post, and his wife, Gu Kailai, stands accused of Heywood’s murder. Both have disappeared from view.
In China, politicians don’t just "fall from favor" – they plummet.
The murder charge is almost certainly trumped up: the chief "witness," Wang Lijun, was Bo’s chief of police, who was himself under investigation by central authorities and had been summoned to Beijing to spill the dirt on Bo. When he returned, he showed up at Bo’s office and informed him that his wife had Heywood poisoned. Wang has also since disappeared.
The Wall Street Journal is pushing this story big-time: they have a breathless account of Heywood’s "final hours," including a sub-plot about mysterious "documents" detailing Bo’s overseas investments stashed away in England: their story cites a "friend" of Heywood’s who say he feared for his safety. There is good reason to doubt the veracity of this anonymous tipster, if only because it contradicts numerous press accounts that describe Heywood as "happy" in the days before his death: a New York Times piece says he had "moved beyond" his relationship with Bo’s family and other accounts report he hadn’t seen either Bo or anyone in his family for a year.
It is being reported that questions about Heywood’s death were raised, not by his family, but by the "British expatriate community" in Chongqing: this, however, appears to be a euphemism for the British government, as this tweet by William Hague indicates. Heywood’s James Bond-ish persona combined with his business affiliations should cause a few alarm bells to go off about this affair: in addition to his own consulting firm, Heywood-Boddington, the deceased also worked for Hakluyt & Co., founded by former officers of the British spy agency MI-6. Hakluyt is described by one top Australian government security official as "aggressive and invasive" as far as corporate intelligence companies go, and this is borne out by their record: they were caught, in 2001, infiltrating and spying on European "green" groups on behalf of Shell Oil and British Petroleum.
Hakluyt, which also operates as the "Hakluyt Foundation," is part of a pattern established by MI-6 in the 1960s, when several "consultancies" – e.g. Diversified Corporate Services, operating out of Rome, London, and New York – were set up as, essentially, fronts. As one source describes the spookish origins of Hakluyt:
"Set up in 1995 by the late Sir Fitzroy MacLean, with a board that includes a former Royal Dutch Shell managing director and a former BP deputy chair, the Hakluyt Foundation provides leading British businesses with information that clients ‘will not receive by the usual government, media and commercial routes’. Hakluyt’s managing director, Christopher James, was until 1998 in charge of MI6’s liaison with commerce, while a fellow-director, Mike Reynolds, was regarded as one of the Service’s brightest stars."
Heywood’s affiliation with Hakluyt, with its top drawer political and corporate connections – including links to British oil and mining interests – is a strong indication there’s more to his death than is at first apparent. This is an outfit that sports Javier Solana, former EU foreign minister and NATO secretary-general, and former Senator Bill Bradley on its international "advisory" board. It could be a coincidence that Royal Dutch Shell has recently been granted major oil concessions by the Chinese government – the same leadership clique that opposes Bo.
On the other hand, maybe not.
What is happening in China today is very similar to what happened in Russia after the Communist implosion: the "reformist" leadership in Beijing is quietly selling off the nation’s "socially owned" resources to the highest bidder, creating a class of ostensibly "Communist" princelings – the sons and daughters of high-ranking leaders from the "revolutionary" era – who are living off the fat of the land. They are making themselves fantastically wealthy by establishing cozy relationships with Western corporate interests, taking bribes, allying with China’s gangster underworld, and handing out favors and concessions to the highest bidder. If and when the full story of China’s "Yeltsin years" is ever told, it will no doubt resemble the large-scale looting of the post-Communist Russian economy, which gave rise to the infamous Russian "oligarchs." With one difference: there is a lot more wealth in China to loot.
Just because of who he was, the murky circumstances surrounding Heywood’s death are inextricably intertwined with the struggle of competing corporate interests to profit from the China market – and the factional struggle this has set off within the ranks of the Chinese Communist Party’s top leadership, the first such battle in 20 years.
In China, we are seeing a changing of the guard, as the old "reformist" leadership grouped around the late Deng Xiaoping, passes its legacy to a new generation of "collective leadership." The plan is that, with the "princelings" in charge, and China’s crony-capitalist oligarchy firmly in the saddle, the nation would advance on the road to the "Four Modernizations."
Bo was an obstacle on that road: with his anti-corruption initiatives, his smashing of gangster networks, and his expressed desire to have ordinary Chinese benefit from the enormous wealth pouring into the country, the now-disappeared Chongqing party secretary and populist hero posed the first serious threat to the leadership in many years. The linking of his wife to Heywood’s death is clearly just the beginning of a smear campaign, the full ferocity of which has yet to be unleashed.
China’s oligarchs fear their restive people, and they acted quickly when rumors of a military coup swept the Chinese internet: the censors moved in and tried to stem the tide of speculation, as the government propaganda machine went into high gear, linking Bo to "leftists" who want to bring back the Bad Old Days of the Cultural Revolution. I would be surprised if Bo and his wife reappear as defendants in a public show trial, similar to the trial of the Gang of Four – after all, the less public discussion of the affair, the better for the ruling elite – but I wouldn’t rule it out altogether. If it happens, you can be sure it will be a carefully staged affair, with little if any opportunity for the accused to mount a real defense.
In Russia, Communism fell with a thunderous crash, scattering all kinds of debris across the international landscape and leaving an open power vacuum that was quickly filled by a perpetually inebriated "leader" and various gangster networks. In China, Communism fell as a leaf falls from a tree: slowly, even languidly gliding down to earth. That this soft landing is being helped along by numerous corporate interests with links to Western governments — who are profiting enormously in the process – is a story largely untold. The Heywood affair, mystifying and murky on the surface, illuminates yet another chapter in the long-running serial, which might be entitled "How the East Was Won."