BEIJING – China's ruling Communist Party said Wednesday that it is committed to investigating a political scandal that includes the suspected murder of a British businessman, following new appeals from Britain for a swift probe free from political meddling.
The statement carried by the official Xinhua News Agency came hours after Prime Minister David Cameron and British Foreign Secretary William Hague both held talks with China's propaganda chief during his visit to Britain. They demanded a transparent investigation into the death last year of Briton Neil Heywood in the southwestern Chinese city of Chongqing.
The leading suspect in the death is the wife of the metropolis' former top official, Bo Xilai, whose recent dismissal launched China's biggest — and by far messiest — political crisis in years.
The scandal was set in motion Feb. 6, when Bo's former right-hand man, Chongqing ex-police chief Wang Lijun, made a surprising visit to the U.S. consulate in the nearby city of Chengdu. Wang expressed suspicions about Heywood's death, originally termed accidental, before being taken into the custody of investigators in Beijing. Wang's whereabouts are now unknown.
The party's Central Committee "has made a resolute decision to thoroughly investigate related events and release information in a timely manner, a manifestation of its high sense of responsibility to the causes of the party and the people," the party statement said.
"Based on the facts made public so far, the Wang Lijun incident is a serious political event that has created an adverse influence both at home and abroad, the death of Neil Heywood is a serious criminal case involving the kin and aides of a party and state leader, and Bo has seriously violated party discipline," the party statement said.
Bo was fired as Chongqing's party secretary on March 15 and suspended as a Politburo member for what were described as serious violations of discipline, possibly including interference in a police investigation or corruption.
Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, and aide Zhang Xiaojun were formally named on April 10 as suspects in the death of the 41-year-old Heywood, a longtime resident of China and a friend and business associate of the Bo family. They have been handed over to investigators.
Speculation has focused on the possibility that Heywood was poisoned, rather than dying from excess drinking or a heart attack as was originally claimed. Chinese authorities have said ties between Heywood and Gu had soured, although they didn't say why and an investigation is ongoing.
The scandal has been hugely embarrassing for the country's insular leadership, both in its salacious revelations and in the involvement of foreign political forces. With the proliferation of the Internet and microblogging, the leadership has struggled to control the spread of rumors and unconfirmed reports about the involvement of other top leaders.
Bo, 62, had been considered a candidate for the party's all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee when new members are picked this fall, although his political career now seems over. That has raised new questions about the makeup of the future leadership, although Vice President Xi Jinping is still poised to take over as party leader in the fall and president next spring.