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Western press runs amok with hearsay reporting in Bo case

The unfolding Bo saga would’ve been a familiar spectacle, but for Heywood’s death.

Jonathan Mirsky  LONDON | 29th Apr 2012

he murder in a Chinese hotel of a British businessman, Neil Heywood, the absence of an autopsy, his immediate cremation, his alleged murder by the wife of one of the most powerful political figures in China, the son of the couple badly behaved at one of England's top public schools and Oxford, the disclosure of the murder to American diplomats by a senior Chinese policeman, the British Prime Minister telling a Chinese Politburo member that China must investigate the murder...What a story!

But this story is a farrago of innuendo and the absence of evidence. Chinese newspapers state that Politburo member Bo Xilai is unfit for yet higher office when the country's top leadership is completely replaced by the end of this year. Bo, his family, and associates have been officially accused of vast corruption and even tapping the phones of other high leaders. His wife, Gu Kailai, it is officially alleged, may have caused the murder of Heywood. All this has been snapped up by foreign papers. The Times used the word "murder" on its front page.

Here are a few facts. The British Foreign Secretary is said to have "bluntly" demanded that China investigate Heywood's death; official Chinese newspapers state that Politburo member Bo Xilai is unfit for yet higher office. Bo, his family, and associates have been officially accused of corruption, and, in the case of Bo, tyrannical behaviour. One of the couple's sons, Guagua, is now a graduate student at Harvard, where some remember him as flashing his money about and driving a sports car. In a recent statement to the student paper, however, Guagua contends he had an excellent academic record before Oxford and during his time there.

Although as yet there is only meagre proof that Heywood is dead, much less that he was murdered, the Party's People's Daily stated, "Upon reinvestigation, new evidence proves that Neil Heywood's death was homicide, BoGu Kailai [is] under grave suspicion for committing the crime... [the] case has already been submitted to the judicial departments." A British consul is said to have attended the cremation, but whether he or anyone else identified the body is not known. If the body was immediately cremated there can have been no autopsy.

A British businessman, Heywood was married to a Chinese woman, and had two children who are British subjects. Although his wife came to Britain for his memorial service in December, she lives in official seclusion in Beijing. His mother and wife were told that he had died on 14 November in a hotel room — the name of the hotel is still not certain — that he had a heart attack or died of alcohol poisoning. He was on good terms with Bo and Gu and may have helped their son secure a place at Harrow.

There is now an avalanche of allegation about Gu's rackety personal life, including a British hideaway where she might have had intimate relations with Heywood and other men. Local people have spoken of her charm. Now she is likely to get a bullet in the back of the neck from the state's executioners. As they say in China, "verdict first, trial afterwards."

Here is the sort of hearsay reporting about Heywood in the widely-read British paper, the Daily Mail: "Officials in China told 'The Daily Mail' that Mr Heywood died after helping Mr Bo and his wife Gu Kailai, with whom the Briton is alleged to have had an affair, funnel £1billion of Chinese state assets into foreign bank accounts. Ms. Gu is suspected of murdering the British businessman after he demanded a larger cut of the cash and threatened to expose the money trail. Mr Heywood also worked with the secretive Mayfair business intelligence firm Hakluyt, which is heavily staffed with former MI6 officers..."

What is happening in China is familiar with one exception: the alleged murder of a foreigner. Without that the foreign press would pay little attention. Since Mao's rise to Party power long before the Communist triumph in 1949, inter-Party quarrels at the top level often led the death of the fallen one. After the Chairman's death in 1976 abrupt purging continued, but with no physical eradication. Deng Xiaoping rid the Politburo of Party General Secretary Hu Yaobang and Premier Zhao Ziyang. It is often the case in China that the families and colleagues of those who fall are also disgraced and their corruption is frequently alleged. In the Bo case, says, Harvard Professor of Government Roderick MacFarquhar, "...the whole of the Politburo and their Central Committee colleagues will be exposed as a new property-owning class... It's already got out of hand. The problem for the regime is that it is now out in the public sphere." Throughout Chinese history sexually adventurous wives became targets when a great man died or fell. After Mao's death his wife, Jiang Qing, was said to have been sexually involved with one of the Gang of Four and a ping-pong champion, while Mao himself, whose sexual appetite for underage girls was notorious and well documented, was never criticised for his promiscuity.

A casual look at how Western newspapers have treated the Bo-Gu-Heywood story reveals the universal use of "sources say", "officials say", "friends say", with a nearly complete lack of names or proof. No reputable paper would dare to suggest in this manner if the supposed events, a possible murder, had occurred in the United States or Britain. What we have here is journalistic corruption of the highest — or lowest — order.

Jonathan Mirsky, the ex-East Asia Editor of the Times, is an historian and a journalist specializing in Chinese affairs. In 1990 he was named British Editors' "International Reporter of the Year."

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