Hong Kong. A French architect who worked closely with a disgraced Chinese official and his wife has been arrested in Cambodia, the French government said late Tuesday, in a development that could trigger further diplomatic friction in a domestic Chinese political dispute that has already embroiled the United States and Britain.
Bernard Valero, the spokesman for the French foreign ministry, said at the ministry’s daily news conference in Paris on Tuesday that the architect, Patrick Devillers, had been detained in Cambodia.
“We of course will offer our consular protection, and we are in direct contact with the Cambodian authorities regarding the ins and outs of this arrest,” he said. “We are obviously following the ongoing investigation very closely.”
News services in the Cambodian capital, Phnom Penh, quoted Touch Narouth, the police chief there, as declining to identify any charges against Devillers but saying that he had been arrested on behalf of China.
Devillers is one of two foreigners known to have had business ties to Gu Kailai, the wife the disgrace Chinese official, Bo Xilai, who had seemed on the cusp of winning entry to his country’s highest leadership before he was purged this spring.
The other foreigner was Neil Heywood, a British businessman who died last November in a hotel room in Chongqing, in western China. The Chinese government has detained Gu as a suspect in Heywood’s death, saying that there are strong grounds for suspecting that Heywood was murdered.
The Chinese government has not made any public comment so far about Devillers.
Bo has been removed as party secretary of Chongqing and suspended as a member of the Politburo, and is being held for interrogation regarding whether he tried to prevent his police chief, Wang Lijun, from investigating the death of Heywood. Wang fled to the US Consulate in Chengdu in early February, where he remained for a day before being released into the custody of Chinese security officials from Beijing.
Devillers had remained in Cambodia despite being warned strongly and repeatedly by friends that he was in danger there, in part because of the Cambodian government’s close connections to the Chinese government, which is its largest creditor and aid donor.
Devillers may have stayed because he began living with a Cambodian woman soon after moving to Phnom Penh nearly six years ago and has a kindergarten-aged child with her, said a friend who insisted on anonymity because of the diplomatic tussle over Devillers.
The friend added that he did not know if Devillers had ever signed a marriage document with the woman. It is common for expatriate men to enter long-term relationships with Cambodian women by seeking the approval of the woman’s family and local elders rather than signing paperwork and formally entering into marriage. The friend also did not know whether the woman or the child had acquired French citizenship.
When a New York Times reporter met Devillers at his home in Phnom Penh on May 5, he declined to provide any comment on the record about his work in China for Bo or his wife, Gu.
Devillers has immersed himself for many years in the study of Taoism, a mystical philosophy with deep roots in Chinese culture, and the most famous Taoist text, the Dao De Jing, also known as the Tao Te Ching.
In an email on May 16, he provided a single quote to summarize his contempt for the media interest in him, his denial that he has engaged in money laundering for anyone in China or been involved in any other wrongdoing, and his hope that the outside world would soon lose interest in him.
“Regarding our subject, I came on this quote from the Dao De Jing by Laozi which says: ‘Give evil nothing to oppose and it will disappear by itself,’” Devillers wrote. “I believe this teaching to be full of wisdom and hope facts will unfold the truth of it.”
Calls to Devillers’ mobile phone in Cambodia on Tuesday evening were not answered.
An expert on Cambodian laws said that Cambodia concluded an extradition treaty with China in 2000, one of a handful of countries with which Cambodia has such agreements.
Cambodia does not have an extradition treaty with France, the expert added. News of the arrest of Devillers comes six days after a visit to Phnom Penh by He Guoqiang, one of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the pinnacle of the Chinese Communist Party and the top decision-making group in China. He is also the head of the Communist Party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection, one of several bodies that is likely to be involved in the investigation of Bo.
When Gu established a company in Britain in 2000 to choose European architects for projects in China, Devillers was her business partner and they both used the same address, an apartment in Bournemouth on the southeastern coast of England.
When Devillers and his father set up a real estate company in Luxembourg in 2006 to hold tens of millions of dollars’ worth of European real estate, the address that Devillers put on the company’s registration documents was the same apartment in Beijing where Gu had based her law firm. Devillers’ father, Michel Devillers, said in an interview that his son set up the fund to sell real estate to Chinese investors, but there has been no public evidence so far that Chinese money actually went into the fund.
China has many legal restrictions on overseas investments by its citizens and particularly scrutinizes foreign investments by public officials.
New York Times