Thousands of Chinese netizens have joined online speculation about the fate of ousted former Chongqing Party chief Bo Xilai, passing around U.K. press reports about the behavior of his son and commenting on a request from the British Foreign Office that Beijing investigate the death of one of its nationals amid suggestions of "suspicious circumstances."
British officials on Monday confirmed reports that they had requested a probe into the death last year of Neil Heywood in a Chongqing hotel room, but declined to comment on the suspicions that had been raised.
Heywood's body was cremated in November without an autopsy and the cause of death given as "excessive alcohol consumption."
But Heywood is believed to have been a teetotaller, giving rise to speculation that his death was somehow linked to the departures of Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun and Communist Party secretary Bo from office in recent weeks.
Online reports in Chinese described Heywood as "Bo Guagua's English servant," referring to Bo Xilai's son and suggesting a close link between the Briton and the family of a man once tipped as one of the next generation of leaders.
Several microblog posts on the popular Sina Weibo Twitter-like service garnered several thousand comments before being deleted late on Monday local time. "Sorry, but there has been an error or the page you are looking for does not exist," a Sina message said.
Recently, an unconfirmed leaked document purporting to be the minutes of a top-level Party meeting in Beijing said Wang fled to the U.S. consulate in Chengdu after a meeting with Bo in which he warned that his boss's close relatives appeared to be implicated in "an important case."
Beijing has yet to issue a formal statement on the incident, and has given no indication of the Bo family's whereabouts, nor what will happen to them in the wake of Bo's fall from grace.
Events in Chongqing, which has now begun the reversal of many of Bo's old policies including banning the singing of Mao era revolutionary songs and bringing back advertising to replace "red" programming on local television, have gripped the imagination of the nation's netizens and commentators ahead of a key leadership transition at the 18th Party Congress later this year.
But reliable information has been thin on the ground, leading to burgeoning rumors of political coups, factional infighting, and satirical observation of China's political elite and their highly privileged offspring in recent days.
Political analyst and veteran journalist Jiang Weiping said that, at the very least, two separate questions now hang over Bo and his family.
"The family are now suspects in two separate cases, one being long-term corruption all the way from Dalian [Bo's former posting] to Chongqing," Jiang said.
"The other is that of bending the law for one's own purposes; the suggestion that Bo Xilai and [his wife] Gu Kailai are above the law."
Netizens on Monday focused on an article in Britain's Daily Mail newspaper, which detailed the antics of Bo Guagua while he was being educated at Harrow and Oxford.
"While studying philosophy, politics and economics at Balliol College, Oxford, he was reportedly ‘rusticated’—or suspended—for failing to study hard enough," the Mail reported, in an article that was freely reposted on the popular microblogging platform Sina Weibo on Monday.
Netizens in particular picked up with great hilarity on Bo's reportedly "strained relationship with books," and his invitation of Hong Kong movie star Jackie Chan to give a lecture at Oxford.
"Maybe it's OK if the books are thin," wrote user @laorongchengren, in a pun on the Bo family surname often used as a homophone to avoid China's Internet censors.
"This is worse than the children of the mega-rich," wrote user @Miss_shone in a comment to a post. "The children of the rich spend their family's capital, while the children of officials are spending the people's fingers and bones."
User @wanyanbing007 agreed: "Some people are so shameless."
Others tried to read between the lines of the discussion.
"I thought this microblog thread would get deleted," wrote user @guiguiluo. "I never thought it would last all through the afternoon and into the evening."
"It's clear what forces are at work here," the user added in a comment that was later deleted.
Reported by Hai Nan for RFA's Cantonese service and by Zhang Anan for the Mandarin service. Translated and written in English by Luisetta Mudie.