Britain denies dead businessman in China scandal was a spy

Neil Heywood in an undated photo.

Story highlights

  • Neil Heywood was found dead in a Chinese hotel in November
  • The wife of a former top Communist Party official is being investigated over the death
  • Heywood had worked for a firm founded by former British intelligence officers
  • But the British foreign secretary denies that he worked for the government

A U.K. businessman whose death is at the center of a huge political scandal in China was not a spy working for Britain, the foreign secretary said.

Neil Heywood was found dead in a hotel in the southwestern Chinese metropolis of Chongqing in November. The cause of death was reportedly ascribed to excessive alcohol consumption initially, and his body was cremated without an autopsy.

But Britain asked China in February to investigate the matter further after being informed of growing concern about Heywood's case.

The Chinese authorities have since put Gu Kailai -- the wife of the former Chongqing party chief, Bo Xilai -- under investigation in relation to Heywood's death. And Bo has been ousted from his top Communist Party posts and placed under investigation in connection with "serious discipline violations."

Speculation has been rife about the nature of Heywood's work in China and his ties to Bo's family.

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Heywood had lived in China for more than a decade and was married to a Chinese woman. Among the companies Heywood advised was Hakluyt and Company a consulting firm founded by former officers of the British spy agency MI6.

That link fueled rumors that Heywood might have had connections to the British intelligence services.

But in a letter to a British lawmaker this week, William Hague, the British foreign secretary, denied that possibility.

"Mr Heywood was not an employee of the British Government in any capacity," Hague said in the letter, which was seen Thursday by CNN.

Hague noted that government policy is usually "neither to confirm nor deny speculation of this sort."

But he said he was making an exception "given the intense interest in this case."