In late September, President Meng Hongwei of Interpol took a flight to China and mysteriously disappeared. Meng’s last message to his wife was a knife emoji, potentially indicating a dangerous situation. In early October, after Beijing confirmed that it had been holding Meng in custody, French forces moved to launch an investigation. China quickly responded by stating that President Meng had resigned, although Meng could not be reached to comment. Interpol subsequently issued a statement accepting the resignation. China’s detainment of an international official is a disregard for international standards of diplomacy, and reflects the increasingly authoritarian policies enforced by President Xi Jinping and his government.
The Ministry of Public Security declared that Meng was being investigated for accepting bribes. Several Chinese officials defended the government’s actions. A Chinese law enforcement official, Zhao Kezhi, stated that Meng “insisted on taking the wrong path and had only himself to blame (for his downfall).” A spokesman for the Chinese foreign ministry stated that “This has shown the Chinese government’s firm resolve to crack down on corruption and crime,” and that “It has also made very clear that this case fully demonstrates that the party is firm in fighting corruption.”
Meanwhile, multiple critics have commented on the matter. An expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, Willy Lam, said, “This puts China’s internal political struggle over and above the international norms on the rule of law.” And independent Chinese political analyst Zhang Lifan stated, “By putting him in the position of Interpol chief, China hoped to show its determination to govern by law…. But now the spokesman is in trouble and it has definitely dealt a blow to China’s image.” Even acting president of Interpol Kim Jong Yang commented, “I find it regrettable that the top leader of the organization had to go out this way and that we weren’t specifically notified of what was happening in advance.”
At first, Meng’s appointment in 2016 was hailed by President Xi as a reflection of China’s public commitment to international standards of law enforcement. However, Meng’s role then became an opportunity for the Chinese government to use Interpol. Indeed, East Asia director of Amnesty International Nicholas Bequelin warned, “The appointment of Meng Hongwei is alarming given China’s longstanding practice of trying to use Interpol to arrest dissidents and refugees abroad. It seems at odds with Interpol’s mandate to work in the spirit of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.” Despite China’s suspected influence, Meng made efforts to increase China’s presence in global enforcement matters. He helped manage the operation of a Chinese campaign to eliminate conflict and crime on the Mekong River. He launched Operation Fox Hunt, which attempted to bring Chinese officials and business people suspected of corruption back into the country. But China also tried to use Interpol to put out a “red notice” for Dolkun Isa, a self-exiled activist for China’s Uighurs.
Interpol revoked this red notice in early 2018, an action about which China’s Foreign Ministry expressed its “dissatisfaction.” Indeed, Meng’s lack of help in the pursuit of Dolkun Isa might’ve been the final blow between him and President Xi in an already uneasy relationship. Meng was a communist insider, with deep ties to the China’s internal operations and agenda, but he was also previously close with Zhou Yongkang, one of President Xi’s adversaries, who is serving life in jail for corruption. These factors did not sit well with the Chinese administration, who now suspect Meng of corruption.
On Sunday, October 7, Meng’s wife, Grace, made an appeal from France to the international community to help find her husband. Later in the month, she expressed her anger and “hate” for the Chinese officials who’ve detained her husband under corruption charges. She finds these actions by the state to be “political persecution.” She also stated that “everyone in China is at risk. Everyone should be concerned that something like this could happen to them.”
Meng’s detainment is just one in many instances this year where the Chinese government claimed increasing authority over its citizens. A new supervision law allows investigators to detain a public official for three months. In late September, actress Fan Bingbing resurfaced after a three-month disappearance, and agreed to pay £100 million in taxes and fines. The state has already implemented facial-recognition technology in public spaces to identify fugitives, and it has forced citizens to use virtual technology that monitors group chats and social media posts.
China’s authoritarian tendencies grow simultaneously with China’s controversial actions abroad. Around the same time as Meng’s disappearance, Chinese hackers infiltrated a California-based computer chip company, Supermicro, effectively infiltrating almost 30 U.S. companies. And China is effectively muscling through a trade war with the U.S. While the U.S. threatens to tax more than last year’s total Chinese import volume, China has already taxed $110B of U.S. imports and has signaled its willingness to continue, by denying trade talks and lowering non-U.S. tariffs domestically. China’s minister for commerce Zhong Shan said in an October statement, “There is a view in the U.S. that so long as the U.S. keeps increasing tariffs, China will back down. They don’t know the history and culture of China.”
President Xi’s administration has showcased its strength in a number of ways: by intruding on its citizens, by standing firm in a globally-affecting trade war, and by shamelessly detaining its citizens both at home and abroad. Meng’s detainment is just the latest in these events that put China’s regard for human rights into question. The Human Rights Watch has responded by stating, “no one’s immune from enforced disappearances.” Countries around the world have special rules regarding indefinite detainment and right to trial, it’s now up to China to decide whether it should abide by such standards in human rights.
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