BEIJING -- China's external intelligence agency, the Ministry of State Security, suspected a British businessman of being a spy before his murder last year at the hands of a senior politician's wife, according to people with close ties to Chinese state security.
The murder is still widely seen as stemming from a financial dispute between the businessman, Neil Heywood, and Gu Kailai, whose husband, Bo Xilai, was dismissed from the Politburo as the affair erupted into one of the biggest scandals to affect China's political leadership in decades. But the intelligence links add another enticing subplot to Heywood's death.
On Tuesday, The Wall Street Journal reported that Heywood had regular meetings with an operative of the British intelligence agency MI6. The newspaper said he was an unpaid informant, providing information on the Bo family's private affairs.
The British government declined to comment on The Journal's report, with a spokesman referring reporters to a statement made earlier this year that Heywood was not a government employee "in any capacity."
The Ministry of State Security had suspected Heywood of being a British spy, the people close to the ministry said, although they did not confirm that he had worked informally for MI6.
A scholar with high-level ties to Mr. Bo and the ministry said Mr. Bo had known of the ministry's official suspicions before Heywood's death, as had other leaders. Separately, a political analyst with high-level party ties said Heywood was on the ministry's watch list, possibly for years, as a result of his relationship with the Bo family. "When a minister-level cadre has such relations with a foreigner, they'll definitely be watched," the analyst said.
The suspicions may help explain growing paranoia in the entourage of Mr. Bo's wife. Heywood had business ties with Ms. Gu and had helped the couple's son apply to British schools. Toward the end, however, their relationship chilled. Heywood told friends that someone in Bo Xilai's inner circle had grown suspicious of his ties with Mr. Bo, and Ms. Gu insisted that her friends swear loyalty to her.
It is unclear, however, whether Ms. Gu suspected Heywood of spying on her family. Ms. Gu's lawyer said his client never mentioned to him that she thought Heywood was a spy.
Adding to questions about the importance of espionage in the case, friends said Heywood had become estranged from the powerful family in the year before his death in November 2011. He also openly cultivated the image of an inside operator, driving around Beijing in a sports car with "007" license plates.