The mysterious case of British expat Neil Heywood’s murder has been all over the media recently, yet still remains unsolved. Some of China’s most powerful people have fallen from grace and the implications of this case have been far reaching within the Communist Party. The wife of a high-ranking Party official has been charged with Heywood’s murder. This may indeed be the biggest scandal to hit China since 1989′s Tiananmen Square Massacre. More details of Heywood’s murder were closely examined in a recent edition of Dispatches.
Neil Heywood arrived in China in the early 90s, when the foreign population was far smaller than it is today. He started his career as an English teacher in the northern port city of Dalian. Heywood quickly settled down in the city, married a local woman, had kids, and considered starting his own language school.
Dalian at that time was going through significant changes. Its influential and ambitious mayor, Bo Xilai, was determined to put Dalian on the map. He worked hard to revamp the city and make it more attractive to foreign investors – aiming to make Dalian the ‘Hong Kong of the North’.
In 2001, while Dalian was booming, Heywood was running low on money. He had not managed to open his own language school, so decided to start his own consultancy instead. At the time, this was an easy option for a foreigner in China, whether or not they were suitably experienced in their field of supposed expertise. Many expats made themselves into consultants, but Heywood’s Mandarin skills would have given him an extra edge.
His language skills combined with his ‘laowai’ (foreigner) status helped him develop a strong network of connections, known in China as ‘having good guanxi’. Doing business in China, indeed doing most anything, relies on you having good guanxi. For a foreigner who speaks Mandarin, who has just an ounce of charisma, this is easy to achieve.
One day, while glancing through the newspaper, Neil Heywood spotted a prime guanxi opportunity. Bo Guagua, son of Dalian mayor Bo Xilai, had just started studying at the prestigious English public school: Harrow.
Coincidentally, Heywood was a Harrow graduate. He seized this chance to introduce himself to the Bo family as an Old Harrovian living in Dalian. I can imagine at the time, he would have been the only one. After meeting Guagua and his mother, Gu Kailai, Heywood was accepted by them, and began spending time with the family, helping Guagua with Harrow-related matters and chauffeuring him around during half-terms spent in the UK. Just like that, Neil had become part of the influential Bo family’s inner circle, via his tenuous links with their son.
Photo: Getty Images
Dalian + Harrow = instant trust and friendship. A somewhat tenuous connection, no?
But nevertheless, the connection was made and the guanxi was established. Neil Heywood was now linked to one of China’s most powerful political families.
He could use this connection to impress others and build further guanxi – benefiting him personally and professionally. I can imagine how pleased Heywood must have been to secure this guanxi, his excited thoughts about all the doors it would open for him, and the bright future in China that was now assured.
Heywood’s lifestyle changed dramatically after he met the Bo’s. In 2004, he moved with his family to a posh gated community in Beijing to start living the high life. He bought a Jaguar, enrolled his kids in a top private school, and began cultivating his image as the debonair, well-connected English businessman abroad. Heywood liked to be seen as the man who knew the right people, the man who could get things done.
Dressed in linen suits and brogues, with his posh English accent, 007 number plate on his Jag and 007 at the end of his phone number, Heywood would not have been taken seriously back home in the UK. But in China, his image impressed people. It helped him land a job as ‘foreign advisor’ for Aston Martin.
After Neil Heywood died, there was much talk in the international media about the rumours surrounding his life. For a while, many people believed him to be a ‘top-level fixer’, or even an MI6 spy. How else could this British man be so successful and so well connected in Chinese society?
I believe that the Sunday Times is the only paper to get it right.
In their analysis of the case, they portray Neil Heywood as a ‘lazy chancer out of his depth’. Their research supports this theory with interviews from people who knew Heywood.
But how could such a lazy British chancer do so well in China?
I believe the answer lies in the ‘British’ part, combined with the ‘laowai’ effect that was once prevalent in China.
I lived in China for almost four years, two of those in Dalian. I remember the ‘laowai’ effect very clearly. In the past, a foreign (usually Caucasian) face in China was synonymous with modernity and internationalism, which explains why Chinese companies are so eager to include white faces in their ads and would frequently offer jobs such as ‘foreign client liaison’, or ‘foreign advisor’, (such as Neil Heywood’s position at Aston Martin).
I always doubted that Heywood was actually an MI6 agent. After all, what kind of secret agent puts ‘007’ on their car number plate? The only possible link is that British agents may have spoken to him to get information about the Bo’s.
It’s not just a foreign face that once guaranteed a person success in China. How about Albanians, Bulgarians, Belarusians, Croatians, Greeks, etc.? How are they viewed in China? Some of these nationalities may be totally unknown to the average Chinese.
It’s all about the power of the place brand.
Let’s turn to academia for further explanation.
Writing for the Tafter Journal blog, Ares Kalandides cites Weichhart et al (2006), whose work distinguishes between “three types of place identity: identification of, being identified as and identification with. The first refers to the ways in which people (groups or individuals) understand and recognise places, as they do other objects, assign them characteristics and particularities. The second (“being identified as”) in a reverse way refers to the ways in which people (again both groups and individuals) are recognised in their relations to their place or origin, residence etc…” (Tafter Journal blog).
The second type of place identity is most relevant to our argument here.
Kalandides continues, “to better understand the second type of place identity, think about the way people treat you when you travel abroad. Probably, without exception they want to know where you are from. You can literally see how your answer triggers images in their mind: if you say “I am from Berlin”, the word will conjure particular qualities they associate in their mind with your city, and which they then project to you (“being identified as”). Their automatic reaction to your person may depend on the image they have of your country or city of origin. This in its turn may have an influence on your chances to get a job, sell a project or find a partner.”
In China, the most common question to ask a laowai is: ‘Ni shi na guo ren?’ (Where are you from?)
So when I reply, ‘Wo shi Yingguoren’ (I’m British), certain associations immediately spring to my Chinese interlocutor’s mind.
It is here that the concept of nation brand becomes relevant.
Britain has one of the world’s strongest nation brands – that fact is indisputable. Granted, the British nation brand in China has links to a colonial past, and may face some remnants of negative perception thanks to this.
But to the average Chinese person on the street, the British nation brand symbolises high quality products, good breeding (the stereotypical British ‘gentleman’ – I guess a lot of Chinese people have never seen a ‘chav’…), world-class education, stable international image, royalty (the Chinese love the British royal family), power, influence, trust, and a desirability of culture second probably only to the United States. Many Chinese admire this strong cultural identity, imbuing the British nation brand with immense positive qualities in China.
In turn, these positive nation brand associations are transferred to the British citizen in China, opening doors and smoothing paths.
In his appearance and mannerisms, Neil Heywood exemplified these typical British characteristics and brought them to life. I believe this is what made him successful in China. He traded not just on his ‘foreign-ness’, but also on his British-ness’, especially the invaluable Harrow connection, plus the ‘James Bond’ style image he was careful to cultivate.
But does a foreign face still open doors in the China of 2012?
I would say that the laowai effect is becoming increasingly less potent these days, due to a combination of the following factors. The growing influx of foreigners into China, especially Beijing, many of who speak decent Mandarin (no longer such a rare and prized skill); the widely publicised bad behaviour of some foreigners that caused outcry in the national media and among Chinese netizens; China’s growing global engagement, making Chinese people more worldly and hence better able to challenge stereotypes, and less likely to be taken in by hustling laowai from countries with strong nation brands.
Life in China these days is much more competitive and hence tougher for the average laowai slacker who relies on their foreign face to get by, even those from countries with good reputations among the Chinese people.
It seems the golden age of the laowai in China may finally be drawing to a close.