The Wall Street Journal reported in a November 6 article under Jeremy Page’s byline that Neil Heywood, the British expat businessman allegedly murdered by Chongqing Party Secretary/Politburo member Bo Xilai’s wife Gu Kailai, had been in touch for more than a year with an officer of Britain’s MI6. Page related that Bo Xilai’s former police chief in Chongqing, Wang Lijun, had shared with his American temporary hosts at the Chengdu consulate Gu Kailai’s “confession” to him that she had “killed a British spy.” Page’s story ricocheted quickly around the blogosphere and spawned new or expanded reporting by other media. The common – perhaps editorially irresistible – suggestion was that Heywood had not only betrayed a boyish fascination with the glamorous world of James Bond, as suggested by his automobile number plate “007,” but had been patriotically “freelancing” – or more – for MI6.
All this prompts the questions: Was Neil Heywood in fact an MI6 officer – and hence a “spy” — as Gu Kailai allegedly “confessed” to Wang Lijun? Had Heywood been wittingly sharing information – “freelancing” – with MI6 about the Bo family’s activities? Could such an allegedly long-standing relationship plausibly have taken place under the noses of China’s ubiquitous security organs and for that matter Bo’s rivals within the ranks of senior party members? If the alleged Heywood/MI6 relationship had been monitored yet not acted upon, what might this suggest about the nature of power and politics in China? Might knowledge of the Heywood/Gu/Bo ties have prompted a high-level investigation by the relevant Chinese agencies and spurred by Bo’s intraparty adversaries?
Too many unknowns remain in the picture to permit a confident weaving of a fully satisfactory explanatory tapestry. Some tentative judgments are possible. First, Heywood appears not to have been a “spy” in any formal sense. There is no indication that he was a trained professional or even a vetted asset periodically given taskings. His reported activities seem more consistent with volunteerism: a man who, out of patriotism, perceived duty, and perhaps a frisson from clandestinity, shared his knowledge with the British embassy.
Such relationships are neither rare nor surprising. Embassies in general – not only intelligence officers – are in the business of collecting, assessing and reporting information. Exhibit A: the Wikileaks cables. Given Heywood’s background and unusual access to Bo’s rarefied world, any embassy officer who did not seek to elicit information would have been guilty of uncommon lassitude.
Secondly, the Chinese security services deploy vast human and technical resources in order to understand with high confidence the activities and motivations of foreigners in touch with Chinese citizens in sensitive positions. A New York Times story published after Page’s story reported as much. According to the paper’s unidentified Chinese sources, security organs had long been monitoring the Heywood-Bo/Gu connections. Left unsaid was whether these organs had been aware of Heywood’s chats with the alleged MI6 officer, but it defies credulity to imagine otherwise.
The Chinese are famously patient in investigation of “state secrets” cases and famously gingerly in investigation of sensitive political cases. The Heywood situation potentially involved both. The relatively few Chinese privy to details of the developing case probably did not consider bringing a classic espionage case (why jeopardize Chinese equities with the British government over essentially commonplace embassy contacts?) but had much incentive to develop what the Russians call kompromat – politically compromising information to blackmail adversaries in murky internecine battles. One must wonder whether Wang Lijun’s specific knowledge of such an investigation — perhaps launched by He Guoqiang’s CDIC, Zhou Yongkang’s MSS, or both – triggered his approach to Bo Xilai in early February to warn him of the threat to his position and ambitions.
Don Keyser is a non-resident Senior Fellow of the CPI, who had previously served as a career diplomat in the US State Department.
Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.