Meng Hongwei, president of Interpol, the international police coordinating agency, has been arrested by the Chinese government. It is a stunning development: A man once heralded by Beijing for reaching the pinnacle of international law enforcement first disappeared and was then revealed to have been arrested on charges of corruption. The irony — a top law enforcement official arrested for breaking the law — is only exceeded by the chilling message sent by his detention: Nothing takes precedence over the Chinese Communist Party’s self-perceived need to protect itself. Governments around the world, including Tokyo, must take note.
Meng had a distinguished career in China’s security apparatus. He became vice minister of public security in 2004, promoted by Zhou Yongkang, then the minister of public security and one of the most powerful men in China. Zhou was one of the first casualties of President Xi Jinping’s anticorruption campaign, whose arrest proved that no one was too senior in the party bureaucracy to be protected. (That Zhou supported Bo Xilai, whom Xi and his allies considered a rival for power, was another damning factor in his indictment.) Zhou was imprisoned for life on corruption charges in 2015.
Meng was one of the most visible figures in China’s efforts to promote an image of international responsibility. He oversaw Chinese contributions to some United Nations peacekeeping operations, led a campaign to eradicate lawlessness in the Mekong River area in Southeast Asia, and guided Chinese efforts to track down Chinese officials and business people who had fled abroad amid suspicions of corruption.
In 2016, Meng was elected president of the International Criminal Police Organization — a largely ceremonial position; the organization is run by its secretary-general — one of the most high-profile positions occupied by a Chinese citizen in the international bureaucracy. China exulted in the boost to its efforts to secure international legitimacy, and last year Beijing hosted the organization’s annual general assembly, with Xi addressing the gathering.
Last month, however, the smiles vanished. While traveling home from Interpol headquarters in Lyon, France, Meng disappeared. His wife contacted the French police, and on Oct. 7 Chinese authorities announced that they had detained him so that he could be investigated for corruption, although there was no additional information about the crimes of which he was accused. On the same day, Interpol tweeted that it “received the resignation of Mr. Meng Hongwei as president of Interpol with immediate effect.” That bland statement ignored all the circumstances of the case — as if a resignation by an individual held in secret detention was business as usual. Interpol’s acting president said the organization had no advance notice of the investigation or the planned arrest.
Equally disturbing was the statement released by China’s Ministry of Public Security — ostensibly his employer as Meng was still a vice minister — that said a hurried meeting of its Communist Party committee had condemned Meng for corruption and underscored the need for “absolute loyalty” as well as “resolute support” for Xi. In other words, Meng was apparently being accused of political crimes and less than complete support for Xi.
There are many reasons to be troubled by these developments. First, there is the blatant disregard for justice. Meng has been secretly detained and his wife threatened after she held a news conference about his disappearance. Meng may be a Chinese citizen, but that does not give the Beijing government an excuse to arrest and detain him without any process. As one human rights advocate explained, “It’s very concerning (that) China thinks it can abduct and arbitrarily detain the sitting head of an international organization without serious consequences.”
Second, there is the political nature of the allegations. The assertion that all officials, at home or abroad, must be loyal first to the Chinese Communist Party violates the long-standing practice that international bureaucrats give their first loyalty to their institution, that they try to be neutral and above nationality in their work. When Meng first went to Interpol, there were fears that he would try to corrupt the process by which a Red Notice, the Interpol arrest warrant, is issued and be used against political dissidents. The organization’s constitution prohibits interventions that are political and Meng respected that limit, saying that the organization’s neutrality was “its lifeline.”
The silence that has greeted Meng’s abduction and detention is deafening. That is shameful. All governments should complain about the treatment afforded an international official, and demand that all such officials put their organization’s interests ahead of that of their country. It is an ideal standard, but it is one to which they and their organizations must aspire, and to which their dispatching countries must honor.