LONDON (Reuters) - Britain repeatedly pressed for an investigation into the death of a British businessman, whose murder sparked political upheaval in China, before Beijing agreed to look into the case, the foreign minister said on Tuesday.
A British diplomat first asked Chinese officials to investigate the death of Neil Heywood on February 15 but it was not until April 10, after Britain had lodged four requests, that the Chinese authorities told London that an investigation was under way, Foreign Secretary William Hague said.
Hague released a detailed account of the British government’s involvement in the Heywood case to counter accusations from politicians, from several parties, that the government had been slow to urge China to investigate Heywood’s suspicious death.
“We have asked for, we have demanded, an investigation. The Chinese authorities have agreed to conduct such an investigation,” Hague told parliament. “We are pursuing this extremely carefully but vigorously.”
Prime Minister David Cameron raised the Heywood case on Tuesday with visiting senior Chinese official Li Changchun, who assured him that the case was “being examined by the judiciary in full accordance with the rule of law”, a spokeswoman for Cameron said.
Cameron told Li, China’s propaganda chief and a member of China’s most powerful leadership body, the nine-member Politburo Standing Committee, that Britain was ready to offer “any necessary assistance” with the investigation.
Li thanked him for his offer, the spokeswoman said, but there was no word of him taking it up.
British help with the investigation, if any, is not likely to include sending police, a government source said.
Police in China at first attributed Heywood’s death last November to cardiac arrest due to over-consumption of alcohol.
But authorities said this month that the wife of Bo Xilai, a former high-flying Communist Party chief of China’s southwestern Chongqing city, was a suspect in the murder of Heywood, 41, who was found dead in a hotel room in Chongqing.
The death ended Bo’s hopes of emerging as a central leader and potentially is the most divisive issue the Communist Party has faced since Zhao Ziyang was sacked as Party chief in 1989 for opposing the brutal army crackdown on student-led demonstrations for democracy centered on Tiananmen Square in Beijing that year.
The scandal comes at a time when the British government is trying to build closer trade and investment ties with China to help boost Britain’s stuttering economy, ties it will not want to see damaged by the affair.
Before Cameron’s talks with Li, a spokeswoman said he would welcome the Chinese investigation while saying that Britain wanted concerns about Heywood’s death addressed.
“We want to see the conclusion of an investigation that observes due process,” she said.
Hague faced questions in parliament from a member of his Conservative Party about whether the British government had done all it could about Heywood’s death and from the opposition about the long delay before Britain made its concerns public.
In a written statement to parliament, Hague said Foreign Office officials first became aware from January 18 of rumors in the British expatriate community in China that there may have been suspicious circumstances surrounding Heywood’s death.
He said he told British officials to make “urgent representations to the Chinese authorities” and to seek an investigation into Heywood’s death as soon as he was told about the case on February 7.
A day earlier, Bo’s once-trusted police chief Wang Lijun fled to a U.S. consulate in an apparent attempt to secure asylum, alleging that Bo’s wife was involved in Heywood’s death.
Top British diplomats asked Chinese officials to launch an investigation for the first time on February 15 and lodged two more requests in the following two weeks, the Foreign Office said.
“In the absence of a formal Chinese response, on March 22, the (Foreign Office’s) consular director raised the case in the same terms with a visiting senior Chinese consular official in London,” Hague said.
It was not until April 10, shortly before their public announcement, that Chinese authorities informed the British ambassador that an investigation had begun, Hague said.
“We now wish to see the conclusion of a full investigation that observes due process, is free from political interference, exposes the truth behind this tragic case, and ensures that justice is done,” Hague said.
Additional reporting by Matt Falloon, Mohammed Abbas; Editing by Jon Hemming