Britain's Foreign Secretary William Hague on Thursday took the unusual step of publicly insisting that a U.K. businessman who died in suspicious circumstances in China was not working as a British spy.
In a letter to Parliament's Foreign Affairs Select Committee, Hague said he was breaking conventions which usually prevent ministers from commenting on the identities of intelligence officials amid continuing speculation around the mysterious death of Neil Heywood, whose body was found Nov. 15 at a mountaintop hotel in the southwestern city of Chongqing.
Heywood had close ties to Bo Xilai, a Chinese political high-flier whose career has been derailed by the death. Bo was removed as Chongqing's Party Secretary on March 15 and has been suspended as a Politburo member amid questions over whether he tried to abuse his power to quash an investigation into his wife and a household employee over the Briton's death.
Though authorities in China initially had said Heywood died from either excess drinking or a heart attack, they have since opened a new investigation and named Bo's wife Gu Kailai as a suspect in the purported murder of the Briton.
Lawmakers had written to Hague asking him to clarify whether Heywood had worked with British intelligence "either on a formal or informal basis." It followed reports in Britain that Heywood had carried out work with Hakluyt, a consultancy founded by a former British spy.
"It is long established government policy neither to confirm nor deny speculation of this sort," Hague said in his letter to the committee. "However, given the intense interest in this case it is, exceptionally, appropriate for me to confirm that Mr. Heywood was not an employee of the British government in any capacity."
Hague said Heywood had been only "an occasional contact" of Britain's embassy in Beijing, "attending some meetings in connection with his business."
The British minister acknowledged that from mid-January British diplomats had also become aware of rumors over the circumstances around Heywood's death. Hague said he was informed of the suspicions on Feb. 7, a day after Chongqing's former chief of police, Wang Lijun, visited the U.S. consulate on Feb. 6 to raise concerns about the case.
"After discussing this with Mr. Heywood's family, a formal approach was made to the Chinese authorities requesting further investigation," Hague wrote.
In talks in London earlier this month, both Hague and British Prime Minister David Cameron urged Chinese officials to ensure the investigation is free from political meddling.