Chinese sources say that the sole purpose of suggesting that the Old Harrovian fixer was an MI6 agent would be to deal another blow to the reputation of Bo Xilai, the former Communist Party chief in Chongqing.
“Some of us with connections inside government have heard that this announcement is coming and we are very fearful. I don’t think it’s true and it will be terrible for his family and everyone who ever did business with him,” a friend of Mr Heywood’s told The Times.
Sources close to the British security services have made clear that he was never employed by them.
Mr Bo’s career has already been damaged by a scandal that erupted when the former police chief of Chongqing sought asylum in the US Consulate. An alleged association with a foreign spy would make his purge from Chinese politics complete.
Fears that Mr Heywood may be unjustly outed as a spy have emerged amid intensifying speculation over how he died last November. Friends confirmed that there remained “clear question marks” on the timing of Mr Heywood’s death. They also said that there were signals from the very start that neither the British Government nor the authorities in Chongqing believed that he died from a heart attack or alcohol poisoning as the death certificate claimed.
In attempting to depict Mr Heywood as a spy, said one friend, the Chinese authorities may point to his work as a freelance gatherer of industrial intelligence. That work occasionally saw him hired for individual projects by Hakluyt, the strategic intelligence firm founded by an ex-MI6 officer.
Sources close to Mr Heywood’s family said they were braced for descriptions in the Chinese state media in the next few days “that will say Neil was a foreign intelligence agent and bear no connection with the reality of his day-to-day professional life”.