Neil Heywood, the Briton whose death in China is at the center of a Chinese political crisis, told friends he feared for his safety because he had fallen out with the wife of a senior Communist Party leader, according to people familiar with the matter.
Heywood had claimed to be part of the small inner circle of Bo Xilai, a former political rising star whose sacking as party chief of the city of Chongqing this month set off one of the biggest upheavals in Chinese politics since the Tiananmen Square crackdown on demonstrators in 1989.
Heywood expressed concern in the months leading up to his death in November that relations had dramatically deteriorated between him and Bo's wife, Gu Kailai, as she became convinced someone in the family's inner circle had betrayed them, the people said.
One of the people quoted Heywood as saying that Gu handled much of the Bo family business but had grown increasingly erratic and at some point had asked Heywood to divorce his Chinese wife and swear an oath of loyalty, becoming angry when he refused.
Gu, a prominent lawyer, has not been accused of any crime, and local authorities attributed Heywood's death to excessive use of alcohol, according to British officials. Attempts to contact Gu directly and through intermediaries were unsuccessful.
The accounts of Heywood's safety concerns are significant because the only previous suggestion of tension between him and the Bo family stemmed from Wang Lijun, who was Chongqing police chief under Bo but abruptly took refuge in a US consulate one day in early February.
Wang claimed to have told his boss he believed Heywood had been poisoned -- a discussion that led to a falling-out with Bo -- according to people familiar with the matter.
Wang also claimed that Heywood had been involved in a business dispute with Bo's wife, these people said.
Wang presented documentary evidence involving his former boss as he tried to negotiate safe passage to the US, diplomats and others familiar with the matter said. He was persuaded instead, these people said, to hand himself over to Chinese central-government officials, who detained him when he left the US consulate in the city of Chengdu on Feb. 7.
A spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office said Thursday that Wang also had sought a meeting at the British consulate in Chongqing in early February, but did not state for what purpose and did not turn up for the meeting. That is a detail about which the British government had previously remained silent.
On Friday, the foreign-office spokesman would not comment on the accounts of Heyward's safety concerns or his relationship with the Bo family.
As well as potentially disrupting China's once-a-decade leadership change scheduled for next fall -- Bo was seen until recently as one who might be promoted to the top-level Politburo Standing Committee -- the unfolding drama now has an additional international dimension. The handling of the Heywood case could affect China's relations with Britain, not to mention possibly exacerbating safety concerns in the foreign business community in China.