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Did a business deal gone wrong lead to China murder case?

A sign of how strange things have become in Chongqing and China, in general: One can ask, out loud and with a straight face, “Did the wife of a disgraced Chinese official really poison a dashing British businessman at the Lucky Holiday Hotel?”

Many in China already think they know the answer, taking the word of the Chinese Communist Party that Gu Kailai, wife of ousted Chongqing party boss Bo Xilai, is “highly suspected” of killing Neil Heywood, a 41-year-old British businessman who reportedly worked as a go-between, or fixer, for the family on business deals.

The government has offered a motive for Gu’s alleged crime: “They had conflict over economic interests.” According to the state Xinhua newswire, a household orderly _ perhaps what many would call a “butler” _ may have been involved.

But much of what has been reported about Heywood’s death and Gu’s possible role in it comes not from official pronouncements, but from Internet postings and interviews with people who claim to have inside knowledge.

A recent Reuters story, for example, quoted two unnamed sources as saying that Gu, 53, had Heywood killed after he threatened to expose her plans to move large amounts of money abroad during an argument about him getting a bigger cut. Heywood’s death in November was initially reported as caused by over-consumption of alcohol. Or a heart attack.

Over the weekend, Internet postings, widely repeated by some Western news agencies, said that cyanide was the poison.

The unfolding story of the downfall of Bo Xilai, 62, and his wife has profound implications for the world’s second-largest economy. Before his removal last month as Chongqing’s party secretary, Bo was widely expected to gain a seat later this year on the nation’s Politburo Standing Committee, the epicenter of power in China.

Those plans came to a halt after a series of imbroglios that were given an unusual amount of public exposure, raising speculation that senior officials in the government had used them to smear Bo and make his ouster easier to engineer.

Bo was seen to have alienated some in Beijing by his brash ambition. There were, too, his campaign in Chongqing to celebrate Maoist-era culture and a police crackdown on criminal groups that critics say was used to remove his rivals and seize assets.

Bo’s steep plummet from grace began in February when his former police chief, a man named Wang Lijun, took an unsanctioned trip to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu, possibly seeking asylum. The government has not explained why, exactly, Wang fled Chongqing. Others have sought to fill in the gaps.

“Wang Lijun was handling the (Heywood death) case and during the process he discovered that the death wasn’t caused because he drank too much alcohol but it was due to poisoning,” Wang Kang, a public commentator and documentary filmmaker who is well connected in Chongqing, told McClatchy.

After Wang Lijun presented Bo with the news that his wife was wrapped up in Heywood’s murder, Bo kicked Wang out of his office and then called him back in, Wang Kang said. Wang Kang and Wang Lijun apparently are not related.

“Bo Xilai said that he himself would teach his wife a lesson,” Wang said.

Pressed in an interview Tuesday about how he’d come across his information, Wang Kang said he’d been in contact with sources, but he wouldn’t say anything more specific. That Wang is able to speak openly and by name about the matter with foreign press without being punished by the government — others declined interviews on Tuesday — suggests that officials approve of his message.

Wang, however, said in a later phone conversation, “Nobody told me either that I am allowed or not allowed to say these things.”

Needless to say, much remains unclear about the story.

For instance, the Lucky Holiday Hotel, which sits on a hill overlooking the city, was publicly named in Western news reports this week as the scene of Heywood’s death. But no security presence hindered a McClatchy reporter’s visit Tuesday to the hotel, which is more widely known as the Nanshan Lijing Holiday Hotel. The lack of security at the scene of so sensitive an event is, in China, unusual.

Asked whether a foreign man showed up dead in a room or villa in November, a clerk behind the front counter, who did not give her name, said she worked there at the time and “We really haven’t heard anything about this.” Was a manager around for further comment? The clerk quickly said that her boss would not be available for an interview.

(Researcher Joyce Zhang contributed to this report)

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