By Tim Castle and Chris Buckley
LONDON/BEIJING (Reuters) - Britain has asked China to investigate the death of a British man in the southwest Chinese city of Chongqing formerly run by Bo Xilai, the leadership contender whose abrupt ousting shook the ruling Communist Party.
The British national, Neil Heywood, died and was cremated in November. Questions about his death have been posted on Chinese microblogs, which linked it to the background of Bo's ouster.
"We have recently asked the Chinese authorities to investigate the case further after suggestions that there were suspicious circumstances involved in his death," said a spokesman for Britain's Foreign Office.
He said the office was "aware of rumors and speculation related to the case" but did not necessarily give them credence.
A spokesman for the British embassy in Beijing said Britain had been told Heywood had died from over-consumption of alcohol and been cremated in Chongqing in November.
Bo was sacked as Communist Party secretary for Chongqing after his former police chief, Wang Lijun, took refuge inside the U.S. consulate in nearby Chengdu for a day on February 6. He was persuaded to leave by Chinese officials who then took him away for investigation.
Wang's flight triggered a torrent of speculation about Bo, a charismatic contender for a top post in the central leadership later this year. He had sacked Wang as police chief shortly before Wang fled to the U.S. consulate.
Last week, two Chinese ex-officials told Reuters central leaders had circulated an account of tension between Bo and Wang. The Wall Street Journal cited people it said were familiar with the case as saying Wang said he had fallen out with Bo after telling him he believed Heywood was poisoned. Heywood's body was cremated without an autopsy, it said.
The paper cited unidentified diplomats and other people it said were familiar with the matter saying Wang presented documentary evidence against Bo at the U.S. consulate but it rejected him because U.S. officials feared accepting him would severely damage relations with China.
At a news briefing days before his ouster, Bo suggested people were spreading baseless accusations and serving the agenda of crime bosses that he fought in Chongqing.
He described as "nonsense" reports, widely circulated on the Chinese internet, that his son, Bo Guagua, was seen driving around Beijing in a red Ferrari sports car. He said Guagua's education at Oxford and Harvard was paid by scholarships.
"These people who have formed criminal blocs have wide social ties and the ability to shape opinion," Bo said of his critics. "There are also, for example, people who have poured filth on Chongqing, and poured filth on myself and my family."
Neither Bo nor his wife could be reached for immediate comment. They have not appeared in public since Bo's ousting.
"BELOW THE RADAR"
The Chongqing government office and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman's office in Beijing were unavailable for comment about the British request.
At a daily news briefing on Monday, a Foreign Ministry spokesman said he had "no understanding" of the case.
A Western businessman who said he met Heywood last year described him as a financial consultant who was "very much below the radar".
"He seemed to know the ins and outs of China very well," said the businessman, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"He struck me as a bit mysterious. Neil was very cautious about handing out his contact details," he said.
"He did drink, but certainly didn't seem the sort who'd drink himself to death."
The Financial Times reported that Heywood, a former pupil of Harrow School, a prestigious private British boarding school where Bo's son Bo Guagua later studied, had good connections to the Bo family and was married to a Chinese national. He had worked in Beijing as a consultant for a number of companies.
In London, a spokesman for Hakluyt, a UK-based private business consultancy founded by former British intelligence officers, said it was one of several companies that occasionally received advice on China from Heywood.
A Hakluyt spokesman told Reuters that Heywood "had a long history advising companies on China and we were among those who sought his advice. We are greatly saddened by his death."
(Writing by Chris Buckley and Philippa Fletcher; Additional reporting by William Maclean; Editing by Janet McBride and Andrew Heavens and Paul Tait)