Until a week ago, few Chinese had ever heard of Neil Heywood, and fewer still raised any questions when the 41-year-old British business consultant was found dead in his hotel room. Today, he is so famous — and such a sensitive topic — that China’s Internet censors have banned searches of Heywood’s Chinese name, Hai Wu De.

Such is the insatiable appetite of tens of millions of Chinese for news — no matter how tangential or speculative — about the country’s biggest political drama in two decades that “Heywood” has joined “tanks,” “military coup” and a host of other search terms now proscribed by the ruling Communist Party as it struggles to calm a national spasm of jitters.

Through Internet postings, Twitter-like messages and articles in Hong Kong’s Chinese-language media, Heywood’s death in November in the southwest megacity of Chongqing is helping to fill a massive thirst for news created March 15 when, with a single sentence, China’s official news agency announced that one of the country’s rising political stars, Bo Xilai, had lost his job as Chongqing’s Communist Party boss.

Perhaps only nine men — the members of the party’s Politburo Standing Committee — really know what led to Bo’s downfall. But the sudden celebrity of a previously obscure Briton highlights how difficult it has become for the political machinery — rooted in a doctrine of intense secrecy and discipline devised by Vladimir Lenin nearly a century ago — to cope with a flood of fact and fantasy unleashed by 21st-century technology.

Though almost entirely hidden from view inside the Zhongnanhai leadership compound in Beijing, the drama at the summit of the party ahead of a ­once-in-a-decade leadership transition is playing out as an increasingly bizarre spectator sport.

The party is not without defenses. A massive censorship apparatus adds new words daily to a list of taboo topics. Even the word “Ferrari” is blocked, after a mysterious March 18 traffic accident in Beijing that may, or may not, have killed the son of a top party official.

Until his sacking, Bo, the charismatic son of one of the party’s revolutionary-era grandees, was widely thought to be in line for a seat on the Standing Committee in the fall. But Bo’s ambitions crumbled when his former right-hand man, Chongqing’s then recently fired police chief, Wang Lijun, fled to the U.S. Consulate in Chengdu and spent 24 hours holed up inside.

Wang, hauled to Beijing by state security agents, is under formal investigation, but officials have made no comment on Bo’s exact status. Even his whereabouts are unknown.

And, fueled in part by overseas media reports recycled by Chinese Web sites, there has been a storm of speculation that Heywood may have been bumped off by Bo, his family or his entourage.

The British government, citing the swirling conjecture, said this week that it had formally asked Chinese authorities to reopen an investigation into Heywood’s death.

According to foreign businessmen who knew him, Heywood gave the impression of having close ties to Bo and his family. “He was kind of a courtier,” said a fellow British business consultant who crossed paths with him in China. “He was clearly close to the family. What puzzled me was, why are they interested in him?” Business is likely to have played a role, though nobody seems sure what Heywood did for the family on the business side.

Undoing ‘red’ culture effort

What is known is that a number of top-level Communist Party officials in Chongqing have been removed in the wake of Bo’s ousting, and the authorities in Beijing have begun to slowly roll back some of Bo’s more controversial initiatives, suggesting that the political earthquake in the sprawling city of more than 30 million people on the Yangtze River is far from over.

On Tuesday, Chongqing media reported the removal of Chen Cungen, a member of the local Chongqing Standing Committee. Earlier, the Economic Observer newspaper reported that the party secretary of Chongqing’s Nan’an district had been taken away by authorities of the disciplinary committee. And investigative magazine Caixin reported that the public security chief in the Yubei district was under investigation for offering a car to Wang, the wayward police chief. That news item was later deleted from Caixin’s Web site.

There have also been unconfirmed reports — mostly from overseas Chinese news agencies — that Wu Wenkang, Bo’s deputy as party secretary and a longtime confidant, was under investigation.

Authorities have been dismantling parts of Bo’s Maoist-inspired “red” culture campaign that had made him a hero to China’s small band of dedicated “new leftists.”

Chongqing’s satellite television station — which Bo had turned into “red television” — announced this week that its daily “Red Songs Concert” program would be pushed out of its prime-time slot. Also, starting this week, five prime-time “political shows” that Bo had ordered on the air were canceled, replaced by the old game shows, dating shows and soap operas that Bo had removed from the lineup last year.

The head of Chongqing’s propaganda department, He Shizhong, was quoted telling local news media that Bo’s group “red song” singing campaigns also would be “changed” and “improved” — which most people interpreted to mean canceled.

Revisiting old cases

Lawyers and human rights activists are also calling for an official reexamination of another controversial, and more troubling, aspect of Bo’s tenure in Chongqing — his “strike black” campaign, also called “strike hard,” against alleged organized crime gangs in the city, which critics, including a former target who fled abroad, said led to widespread human rights abuses and became a cover for well-connected officials to seize private property. In one well-publicized case, a prominent Beijing lawyer, Li Zhuang, was jailed in Chongqing after his legal defense of an accused mob boss during the crackdown.

Chen Youxi, Li Zhuang’s attorney, said Bo’s campaign went far beyond criminal gangs in Chong­qing, targeting ordinary people and legitimate businessmen.

“The biggest mistake of Chongqing’s strike hard is that they exaggerated the mafia and wronged people under that excuse,” he said, adding that torture was common during the campaign.

As has happened with Heywood’s death, other old cases that were firmly closed are being revisited. “The strike hard campaign caused many wrong cases, which must be corrected,” Chen said. “But it depends on the guts and courage of the current leaders of Chongqing to correct the old mistakes.”

Higgins reported from Hong Kong. Researcher Zhang Jie in Beijing contributed to this report.