BEIJING—Cruising around Beijing in a silver Jaguar with “007” in the license plate, Neil Heywood seemed to relish the air of intrigue that surrounded him.
In meetings, the British consultant hinted about his connections to Bo Xilai—the onetime Communist Party highflier—but often he would refuse to hand over a business card. He spoke Mandarin, smoked heavily and worked part time for a dealer of Aston Martin cars, the British brand driven by James Bond. Some thought him a fantasist, others a fraud.
But his contrived aura of mystery appears to have been a double bluff: He had been knowingly providing information about the Bo family to Britain’s Secret Intelligence Service, known as MI6, for more than a year when he was murdered in China last November, an investigation by The Wall Street Journal has found.
The revelation is a new twist in the saga of Mr. Bo, whose wife was convicted in August of poisoning Mr. Heywood in his hotel room in the southwestern city of Chongqing, where Mr. Bo was then party chief. The downfall of one of the party’s most powerful families threw into turmoil China’s plans for a once-a-decade leadership transition, due to start at the 18th Party Congress opening Thursday, and raised questions about corruption, abuse of power and bitter personal rivalries within China’s political elite.
The Journal investigation, based on interviews with current and former British officials and close friends of the murdered Briton, found that a person Mr. Heywood met in 2009 later acknowledged being an MI6 officer to him. Mr. Heywood subsequently met that person regularly in China and continued to provide information on Mr. Bo’s private affairs.
China regards the private lives of its leaders as state secrets, and information about them and their families is prized by foreign governments trying to understand the inner workings of an opaque political system.
China’s Leadership Change
See an interactive guide to China’s 18th Communist Party Congress, read more about the outgoing leaders and some candidates for promotion.
The Chongqing Drama
See key dates in the death of Neil Heywood in Chongqing and the drama surrounding Bo Xilai.
Players in China’s Leadership Purge
Read more about the players in the case.
More photos and interactive graphics
British authorities have sought to quell speculation that Mr. Heywood was a spy ever since the Journal reported in March that he had been working occasionally in China for a London-based business-intelligence company founded by a former MI6 officer and staffed by many former spies.
William Hague, the British foreign secretary who oversees MI6, broke with standard policy of not commenting on intelligence matters and issued a statement in April saying Mr. Heywood, who was 41 when he died, was “not an employee of the British government in any capacity.”
That was technically true, according to people familiar with the matter. They said Mr. Heywood wasn’t an MI6 officer, wasn’t paid and was “never in receipt of tasking”—meaning he never was given a specific mission to carry out or asked to seek a particular piece of information.
The Fall of Bo Xilai
Earlier coverage from The Wall Street Journal:
Crash Puts New Focus on China Leaders
Amid China Scandal, Spy Game Unraveled
In Elite China Circle, Briton Feared for His Life
U.K. Seeks Probe Into China Death
China in Transition: Full Coverage
But he was a willful and knowing informant, and his MI6 contact once described him as “useful” to a former colleague. “A little goes a long way,” the former colleague recalls the contact saying in relation to intelligence reports based on Mr. Heywood’s information.
Mr. Heywood’s intelligence links cast new light on the response to his death from British authorities, who initially accepted the local police’s conclusion that he died from “excessive alcohol consumption” and didn’t try to prevent his body from being quickly cremated without an autopsy. The British government didn’t ask China for an investigation until Feb. 15—a week after a former Chongqing police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to a U.S. consulate in China and told U.S. diplomats that Mr. Bo’s wife, Gu Kailai, had murdered the Briton.
There could be implications, too, for Chinese authorities, who would be guilty of a major security breach if they were unaware that MI6 had a source inside the inner family circle of a member of the Politburo—the party’s top 25 leaders—according to people familiar with the matter. If China’s security services were aware of Mr. Heywood’s contacts with MI6, they likely had him under surveillance during his final visit to Chongqing, those people said.
Until the scandal broke, Mr. Bo was a front-runner for promotion to the Politburo Standing Committee—the party’s top decision-making body—in this year’s leadership change.
Mr. Bo, sacked from the Politburo in April, is now facing criminal charges after Chinese authorities accused him in September of a series of offenses, including bribe-taking and interference in the murder investigation into his wife.
Neither Chinese nor British officials have suggested Mr. Heywood was killed because of his MI6 links. A Chinese court found Ms. Gu guilty in August of killing him because she thought he threatened her son over a business dispute, according to the state-run Xinhua news agency.
Gu Kailai, wife of disgraced Chinese politician Bo Xilai, on trial in August for Mr. Heywood’s murder.
However, friends of Mr. Heywood and prominent Chinese figures have pointed out omissions, ambiguities and inconsistencies in the official account of his killing presented by state media.
And when Mr. Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu on Feb. 6, he told U.S. diplomats there that Ms. Gu had confessed to him that she “killed a spy,” according to one person who has seen a transcript of what Mr. Wang said.
A spokesman for Britain’s Foreign Office declined to comment on what was said in the U.S. consulate, and, when asked about Mr. Heywood’s relationship with MI6, referred back to Mr. Hague’s statement in April.
Asked whether Mr. Heywood had been knowingly passing information to an MI6 officer, without being a government employee, the spokesman said: “We do not comment on intelligence matters or allegations of intelligence matters.” Mr. Heywood’s MI6 contact declined to comment.
Former intelligence officials say most informants and agents in the field aren’t considered employees because they rarely have a contract and aren’t necessarily paid, but people are usually registered as “knowing” sources and assigned a code name if they are providing information to someone who has acknowledged being an MI6 officer.
Mr. Heywood’s Chinese wife, Lulu, declined to comment. His mother and sister didn’t respond to requests for comment through an intermediary. China’s Foreign Ministry didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Mr. Heywood was a potentially risky choice as an informant, not least because of the 007 license plate on his Jaguar. He was, on the other hand, an old-fashioned patriot with a taste for adventure. He was in the rare position of having regular contact with the family of a Politburo member as well as intimate knowledge of their private affairs, according to several of his closest friends. Ms. Gu was godmother to his daughter, Olivia, according to one close friend.
He got to know the family in the 1990s while living in the northeastern city of Dalian, where Mr. Bo was mayor at the time, according to several of his friends, and had become part of an “inner circle” of friends and advisers.
Mr. Heywood kept a low profile in the expatriate community, according to people who knew him, using his connections in China to build a modest freelance consultancy business advising companies and individuals on how to navigate Chinese politics and bureaucracy.
He had dealings with several British companies and politicians, including at least two members of Britain’s House of Lords—the upper house of Parliament. One of those peers met Mr. Heywood several times in the company of his MI6 contact, according to people familiar with the matter.
In the last two years of his life, Mr. Heywood’s relationship with the Bo family deteriorated, especially after Ms. Gu became convinced she had been betrayed by a member of her “inner circle” and demanded that Mr. Heywood divorce his wife and swear an oath of allegiance to Ms. Gu, according to friends of Mr. Heywood.
Mr. Heywood informed his contact of this, according to people familiar with the matter. The contact warned him at one point that he should be careful not to become “a headline,” but continued meeting him and filing confidential reports on those meetings, according to those people.
Mr. Heywood hadn’t seen Mr. Bo for more than a year when he died and had been making plans to leave China, but he appeared to be trying to persuade the Bo family to pay him money he felt he was owed, according to close friends. They said he seemed stressed and increasingly concerned that his emails and phone calls were being monitored. He also had put on weight and begun to smoke more heavily.
“He definitely felt that he should have got more out of the relationship” with the Bo family, said one close friend. “That may explain why he agreed to go to Chongqing that last time. I think he was still hoping to get what he thought he was owed.”
Mr. Heywood flew to Chongqing on Nov. 13 after being summoned at short notice to a meeting with the Bo family, according to Xinhua. He believed he was “in trouble,” according to one friend he contacted that day.
He was murdered that night in his hotel room. According to an official account of Ms. Gu’s trial from Xinhua, she poured potassium cyanide in his mouth after he vomited from drunkenness and asked for a drink of water.
The Foreign Office said that no British officials, including MI6 officers, were in contact with him in the 48 hours before his death, but declined to comment on when and how it became aware of his relationship with the Bo family and that he had been summoned to Chongqing to meet them.
Mr. Heywood’s body was found on Nov. 15, and the British consulate was informed by local authorities the next day, according to a statement by Mr. Hague to Parliament.
Mr. Heywood’s body was found last Nov. 15 at the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel, and Ms. Gu was subsequently convicted of fatally poisoning him.
Chongqing authorities initially told Mr. Heywood’s wife, who had traveled to Chongqing, that he had died of a heart attack, while informing the consulate that he died of “excessive alcohol consumption,” according to British officials. They said the body was cremated on Nov. 18 without an autopsy, but with the permission of Mr. Heywood’s wife.
British consular officials formally expressed to their superiors their concern and suspicion about how Chinese authorities handled Mr. Heywood’s death, but other British officials believed that asking for an investigation would be problematic, according to people with knowledge of the events.
The British officials who initially handled Mr. Heywood’s death are unlikely to have known about his MI6 links or his connection to the Bo family, these people said, but intelligence officials in Beijing and London would have been aware at the time of his death, or made aware soon after.
Britain’s Foreign Office says it had no reason to suspect foul play until members of the British community began raising suspicions on Jan. 18. But the Foreign Office didn’t raise the matter with Chinese authorities until almost a month later—after Mr. Wang’s flight to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu.
U.S. officials informed British authorities about Mr. Wang’s allegations while he was still in the consulate on Feb. 7, according to the Foreign Office. It also told the Journal that a British diplomat was sent to Chengdu to try to meet Mr. Wang, but arrived after he had left the consulate.
Mr. Hague has said that the British Embassy first asked the Chinese central government to investigate Mr. Heywood’s death on Feb. 15. But British authorities didn’t make that public until more than a month later—a delay that confused some U.S. officials following the matter.
Two British diplomats outside the Hefei Intermediate People’s Court in Anhui, China, where Gu Kailai was tried for Mr. Heywood’s murder.
“We couldn’t understand what the British were waiting for,” said one U.S. official who was unaware of any links between Mr. Heywood and MI6.
Write to Jeremy Page at firstname.lastname@example.org
Updated November 6, 2012, 4:47 a.m. ET
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