The mysterious death of a 41-year-old British businessman in a Chongqing hotel room late last year was thrust to the center of the biggest political scandal to hit China’s Communist Party in a generation on Tuesday, as the authorities declared the death a murder and named the wife of one of China’s most powerful men the leading suspect.
The death of the businessman, Neil Heywood, initially attributed to alcohol poisoning, is now considered an “intentional homicide,” the Xinhua news agency announced. That made the case the most sensational in a series of charges against the family of Bo Xilai, who was until March the Chongqing party chief and seen as one of the handful of rising leaders slated to run China.
On Tuesday, Mr. Bo was suspended from his post on the Politburo, the 25-member body that runs China, and from the larger Central Committee, on suspicion of serious disciplinary infractions, the government announced. His wife, Gu Kailai, who is a lawyer, was being investigated in the killing of Mr. Heywood.
Not since the purges after the crackdown on democracy protests in 1989 has the Chinese leadership been exposed to so much turmoil. Excruciatingly for top officials, who prize unity and secrecy above all, this one involves foreigners in an embarrassingly intrusive way — both the death of a British citizen and also the attempt by a senior police official to seek American asylum.
That official, Wang Lijun, a onetime close aide to Mr. Bo who was himself under investigation for corruption, fled to the consulate of the United States in Chengdu in February and spent more than 30 hours there. He said Mr. Heywood had been poisoned and revealed what he knew about the death — and about jockeying for power inside the country’s closed political system, several people briefed on the matter said.
Although he handed over a treasure trove of intelligence, Mr. Wang was told he could not be granted asylum. He left the consulate and was taken into custody, where he has been since.
Mr. Bo has also been under some form of confinement since mid-March, and his wife, too, has been detained. No one representing any of the three could be reached for comment.
Mr. Heywood was an elusive business consultant who married a Chinese woman and carved a lucrative career in Beijing and Chongqing while keeping other British businessmen guessing about how he made much of his money, and he hinted of deep links to the Bo family.
When his body was found in a hotel room on Nov. 15 in Chongqing, the “alcohol-poisoning” death certificate was issued, although friends said Mr. Heywood rarely drank. His relatives said that they had been told he died of a heart attack, and that the body was cremated with their consent, without autopsy.
The announcement of an “intentional homicide” appeared to surprise the British government, which had seemed anxious in recent weeks to distance itself from a major Chinese political scandal, saying that suspicions about the death they had passed to the Chinese were those of other Britons in China, not anything they could substantiate on their own.
After an urgent huddle with other British officials, William Hague, the British foreign minister, told reporters in London: “It’s a death that needs to be investigated, on its own terms and on its own merits, without political considerations. So I hope they will go about it in that way, and I welcome the fact that there will be an investigation.”
Xinhua’s statement appeared to confirm one of the swirling rumors in the case, that Mr. Heywood’s death was linked to business dealings gone awry. The Chinese news agency said Ms. Gu and her son, Bo Guagua, had had close relations with Mr. Heywood but later had “a conflict over economic interests.” But Xinhua did not specify how Mr. Heywood died, or what business interests were involved. The only other suspect in his death, Zhang Xiaojun, was described as an “orderly” working in Mr. Bo’s home.
The shock of the Chinese announcement — claiming that a member of the ruling elite was linked through his wife to a possible murder, and that the killing grew out of private business interests of the kind that have made many Chinese officials rich — had far-reaching implications for the way that China is governed. The impact was amplified since China is facing a once-in-a-decade shift in power this fall to a new generation of leaders. Mr. Bo, 62, had become a contender for a seat in the inner sanctum of power, the nine-member standing committee of the Communist Party’s Politburo.